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Cardinal girls hockey adapts to shorter ice time, season

MASKED UP & READY — Members of Fairmont Area’s girls hockey team leading the Cardinals into the 2021 season-opener against Worthington on Tuesday night at Martin County Arena in Fairmont include, from left, Emily Sokoloski, Jonissa Neitzel, Tegan Roskop, Brooklyn Meyer and Mackenzie Householder. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — Oh, the difference a 10-month pandemic makes.

By this juncture last season, the Fairmont Area Cardinals girls hockey team had played 11 games before Christmas break, two more in the Morris/Benson Area holiday tournament and an additional half-dozen during the month of January.

The Cardinals opened the 2020 Section 3A quarterfinals with a 2-0 triumph over Marshall on Feb. 6 before losing a 5-0 sectional semifinal to Mankato West two days later.

Ironically, Fairmont Area returns to the ice for its initial face-off of 2021 against the Worthington Trojans at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at Martin County Arena in Fairmont — only 18 days earlier than last season’s postseason opener.

Despite starting two months later than normal, playing a condensed 17-game regular-season schedule and being allotted just 50 minutes of ice time for only four practices per week, Ashley Olson enters her fifth season at the Cardinals’ coaching helm with a positive outlook.

“We’ve had to adapt our practice time by rotating through drills more quickly,” Olson said in reference to long-time assistant Eric Householder and program newcomer Ben Olson. “Due to the time constraints, we create small area games on the ice and try to keep everyone involved all the time. We’ve definitely become more efficient in the way we practice now.

“Having a third coach (Ben Olson) has made (practice time) easier, while having only one goalie has made it a lot more challenging.”

Sophomore Hadley Artz returns between the pipes after sharing time in net with Rachel O’Connor during the 2019-20 campaign.

“Hadley’s a strong goaltender,” Ashley Olson said in reference to the Cardinals’ save leader from a year ago. “She’s focused and knows the game, so that’s a huge plus for us.”

Artz will handle all of the netminding duties after O’Connor opted to fill the goaltender vacancy in the Fairmont Area boys hockey program this season.

“It looks like both (varsity) programs only have one goalie at this point. We don’t have a backup, but our entire defense returns from a year ago, so that’s a positive,” said Ashley Olson.

Junior standout Mackenzie Householder returns to anchor the Cardinals’ defensive unit on the heels of leading the team’s statistical charts in scoring. The all-Big South Conference first-team choice produced 16 goals and 11 assists to earn MVP honors for Fairmont Area.

Householder and senior forward Brooklyn Meyer will serve as the Cardinals’ captains, with junior forward Emily Sokoloski filling the role of alternate captain in 2021. Meyer generated four goals and five assists, while Sokoloski lit the lamp for five goals last winter.

“The one thing we haven’t had in the past that we actually have this season is depth on our bench. We finally have enough players to create four lines,” said Ashley Olson.

Junior Alexis Newville, junior Macy Militello, freshman Shaye Dietz and sophomore Corene Moeller all return to flank Householder on the defensive end of the ice this campaign.

At the other end of the arena, seniors Tegan Roskop and Jonissa Neitzel, sophomore Hannah Goerndt and freshman Bella Larson return in hopes of generating offense from the forward and center positions during the upcoming two-month schedule.

“We have a strong upperclassman body comprised of 10th-graders and up this season,” said Ashley Olson. “They’ll give us a strong foundation to build on this year. I couldn’t find a better group to work with.”

The freshman foursome of Jozie Hoefker, Jayda Healey, Karissa Newville and Alex Martin returns to the ice after logging valuable minutes a season ago, and will be joined by the eighth-grade trio of Abby Sundeen, Brittney Lopau and Keara Flanagan.

“It’s good to see we have an enthusiastic group of eighth- and ninth-graders to help maintain our numbers in the upcoming years,” said Ashley Olson.

With only two weeks to prepare for her team’s season-opener against Worthington, how does Olson sharpen her players’ physical and psychological perspectives?

“Actually, I’ve been impressed with the team’s effort and production on the ice during practice,” said Olson. “I expected some to be less conditioned due to the fall sports seasons being cut short, but every one of them has been working hard.

“They’re anxious to get back in a competitive environment, and doing whatever it takes to play. They’re committed to make it (the season) happen, and that’s a great feeling.”

“Now if we can only keep the ice cold in the arena by the end of March,” Olson said with a laugh.

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