‘It’s what high school sports should be about’: Late-blooming Packers head into state semifinals as surprise team
West Fargo downed Fargo Davies in a state qualifier and top West seed Bismarck Century in the state tournament quarterfinals
WEST FARGO — West Fargo wasn’t expected to make it this far. The Packers finished their regular-season campaign with a 4-12 record.
That same team spent Thursday prepping for the North Dakota boys hockey state semifinal they’d be playing in the following day. The Packers compiled a 4-1 postseason record to earn their first state tournament and semifinal appearance since the 2015-16 season.
“It feels pretty good,” senior goalie Brayden Johnson said. “I don’t think too many people expected it from us, so it feels that much better to make it.”
The fourth-seeded Packers (8-14) face No. 2 East seed Grand Forks Red River (18-5) in the semis at 9 p.m. Friday at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks. The Roughriders are the defending state champs.
“It’s the biggest game of the season, and for most of them, of their careers,” Packers head coach Troy Miller said. “But you have to approach it like any other game.”
The Packers know they’re the underdogs heading into Friday’s matchup against Red River. But they’ve overcome long odds to get to this point. West Fargo notched a pair of upset wins to reach the state semifinals.
The Packers entered the East Region tournament as the No. 7 seed, and edged No. 4 seed Fargo Davies 2-1 in a state tournament qualifier. Davies (13-8) beat West Fargo in both regular-season meetings.
“Going into that game, people underestimated us,” said Packers leading scorer Brayden Jacobson. “We were the seventh seed going into the EDC tournament. We came out as fourth. For me, I feel like all the pressure was on them. We had no pressure, since they were expected to beat us.”
The Packers topped No. 1 West seed Bismarck Century (16-3) in the state quarterfinals Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Bismarck. Senior forward Jacobson had two goals and an assist in the opening round.
Jacobson has led the Packers in scoring the past four seasons. He’s the eighth-leading scorer in the state with 23 goals and 38 points this season. West Fargo has two other players packaged into the top 20 scorers in the state — sophomore Colten Bossert (30 points) and junior Griffin Staahl (26 points).
“It’s pretty exciting. I’ve been here for four years, and we were struggling the first couple years,” Jacobson said. “But our last year, we’re going out with a bang.”
West Fargo wrapped up its final practice of the year Thursday. Miller didn’t draw up a comprehensive practice plan. At this point, the Packers know their identity. They know what it takes to play in these elimination type games, having played four in a row now.
West Fargo has proven itself in those do-or-die moments.
“I think part of that is we had such a lousy start. We’ve played from behind basically the first half of the year, so nothing really rattles them,” Miller said. “When we played Fargo North (in the East Region quarterfinals), we got down 3-1, and that almost felt like it was normal. They just keep playing, because that’s what we have to do.
“We have to play the entire game hard and try to keep it close and if we can get a bounce here or there, we feel like we can beat anyone.”
Friday’s semifinal brings some deja vu for Miller. The last time the Packers earned a state tournament bid, they faced Red River in the semis. They eventually fell to the Roughriders, who went on to win the tournament that year (2016).
“We’re just gonna go into (Friday’s) game continuing to play our game and see what happens. Work hard, win the battles,” Johnson said. "Never know what can happen in those games.”
Johnson is in his first year as the starting goaltender for West Fargo after being a backup for three seasons.
The Packers had a winning record (14-10) last year, but came up short in a state qualifier at the conference tournament. They lost some guys who played an awful lot of minutes, and were inexperienced in some key spots entering this season.
“It’s been a long, tough season to go from the start we had. There’s been gradual improvement every week,” Miller said. “I’m thrilled they get the opportunity. If you’re a high school hockey player in North Dakota, the goal is to play at the Ralph or at Scheels Arena on TV. That’s what every team wants to do, and we’re one of four teams this year that gets that opportunity, so we’re very thankful.”
Miller isn’t surprised his team is finding success at the end of the year. The bigger surprise is that it took as long to get going as it did. The coaching staff liked their roster in preseason, but it took some time with the nature of the pandemic season.
“With COVID, the shutdown, and the schedule changing to where we had an extra game thrown in — basically three games every week instead of two — we lost valuable practice time, and stuff just kind of snowballed,” Miller said.
Miller is pleased with the strides the Packers have made this season.
“It’s what high school sports should be about,” Miller said. “You work hard and you try to get better every week. I think this team has done that. We're really proud of them and really happy for our kids and their families.”