MOORHEAD — Ava Kistner had a hard time staying focused during her online classes Thursday. Her mind was somewhere else.
Moorhead Sports Center, to be exact.
For the first time in over 11 months, it was game day for Moorhead’s girls hockey team.
“I'm sitting here with butterflies in my stomach trying to do my schoolwork,” Kistner, the senior right wing, said ahead of Moorhead’s season-opener. “I’m very anxious and antsy and ready to be out there.”
The Spuds opened their abbreviated season at home Thursday against Fargo Davies, two months after they normally would. The familiar cross-state opponents ended in a 4-4 tie after neither team scored in the eight-minute overtime period.
The Spuds (0-0-1) were originally slated to open their season against Bemidji last Saturday, Jan. 16. That game was rescheduled, along with a few others that were reshuffled due to COVID-19 issues, which also briefly sidelined Moorhead’s practices.
Most years, girls hockey begins practice in late October. This year, Minnesota teams were allowed to begin practicing Jan. 4, following a six-week pause in winter sports.
Unlike Moorhead, Davies entered the matchup well tested, with 10 games under their belts. But the Spuds weren’t worried. The team worked together all summer, and felt prepared for the then-upcoming battle, senior captain Elise Stromme said.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Stromme said Wednesday. “The girls, especially the seniors, we’re just ready to finally kick it.”
That eagerness was apparent. The Spuds rushed onto ice for warmups and carried that energy into the first period. Moorhead turned that enthusiasm into three unanswered first-period goals from three different players.
Spuds head coach Ryan Kraft said the message entering Thursday was to contain some of that excitement to make sure the game didn’t get away from them.
“Making sure we have a little controlled emotion and we're not getting too excited so that we forget about our jobs and our responsibilities as hockey players,” said Kraft, in his second year at the helm.
The Section 8, 2A team hadn’t planned on opening their season against a team from North Dakota, but all the Spuds cared about was getting back on the ice. Kistner said despite Davies and Moorhead being on opposite sides of the Red River, it feels like there’s a rivalry brewing.
“We know a lot of these girls and some of us are friends with some of them,” Kistner said Wednesday. “But again, we want to show that Minnesota hockey is better and we don’t want to lose to any North Dakota teams, for sure.”
The Spuds did everything they could to make sure that wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t. Moorhead wasn’t looking for a tie, but they came away without a blemish.
Kraft is hoping the Spuds can have the season he envisions, despite having a young team. Under his reign last year, the Spuds quadrupled their number of wins from the 2018-19 season.
Senior defenseman Stromme said last season, which was Kraft’s first, marked the start of a new era.
“My sophomore year was a bit of a struggle,” Stromme said. “But (Kraft) came in, and he was ready to change the program. Last year, we were just trying to make the game fun again for girls. This year, we have a lot of girls that are very serious about this and want to win. Not just have fun.”
Kraft has stressed short bursts to his bench — 30 to 40 seconds max shift length — this entire season to mitigate the challenges from wearing a mask. As a COVID-19 precaution, most youth and high school sports in Minnesota are required to wear masks at all times, including during competitions.
“They’re not getting the oxygen intake that they're used to while exerting, so (short shifts) are really, really important,” Kraft said.
The mask mandate was the main complaint the first week of tryouts, because with the helmet and a mouth guard, it’s already somewhat hard to breathe, Stromme said.
“Right away, they were terrible. Breathing was tough,” Kistner said. “I had problems with mine getting super wet. So then trying to breathe in, it felt like I was being waterlogged, basically.”
Though it’s not ideal, the Spuds seemed to adjust to the face coverings just fine during their first game of the season. Moorhead fought off a Davies comeback attempt in the second period that could've been dangerous.
Davies trailed 3-0 entering the second frame, and scored a quick three goals in less than 10 minutes to tie the game at 3-all. Moorhead managed to regain the advantage (4-3) heading into the third period, thanks to Bria Holm’s late second-period goal.
Davies senior Kaia Johnson scored a power-play goal with two minutes left in the third period to set up the game-tying score.
The Spuds will have less than 20 hours to prepare for a tough challenge Friday against the No. 8-ranked Roseau Rams. Moorhead plays Roseau (2-0) on the road at 6 p.m.