The Burnsville girls hockey team hopes to be peaking at the right time this winter.
Can new coach Chris Lepper turn the program's recent playoff woes around? There's a solid group back from last year's 18-win team (18-8 overall), including its top goal scorer in senior Aubrey Nelvin, who finished with 18 goals.
Lepper takes over for Tracy Cassano, who resigned after six seasons leading the program to become the head coach at Minnetonka.
Lepper also resigned his post last spring as the Woodbury girls head coach. He’d been with the Royals for six seasons, and the program struggled to get wins with a 29-121-6 overall mark in that span (5-87-4 in the Suburban East Conference).
Woodbury has never been known as a hockey power. Burnsville, meanwhile, has a rich tradition with six state appearances since 1996. The last one was in 2014 in Cassano’s first season as Blaze coach.
"The hope is that this team will adapt to a slightly different style of play and grow as a team," Lepper said. "The hope is to peak at the right time to make a strong push for the section title."
Burnsville has lost five straight Section 3AA quarterfinal games since making the state field in 2014, including getting upset as the No. 2 seed last year by seventh-seeded Park, 2-1 in overtime.
The Blaze boasted one of the state’s best defenses last year. The team allowed just 33 goals in 26 games, and all eight the team’s defeats were by one goal, including four in overtime. But two top defensemen and the goalie are gone, along with the team's top point producer.
Junior Allison Urlaub is also back. She had 13 goals and 10 assists last year. She'll be one to watch on the offensive end with Nelvin, eighth-grader Kendra Distad, junior Emily Howard and sophomores Katie Katzmarek and Sami Bowlby.
Senior Avery Sawchuk returns to the defense, along with junior Gabby Gromacki and sophomore Olivia Carlson. Junior Maria Widen will begin the season in goal.
Lepper said speed and experience are the team's strength.
"Even with only five seniors, we return a lot of players with varsity experience," Lepper said. "Depth at the forward position is definitely a strong aspect of this team."
Burnsville finished 11-7 in the South Suburban Conference last year, which tied the team for fourth place. Last season was the Blaze's first winning season since going 21-9 in the 2013-14 campaign.
Burnsville will open this season Nov. 7 at North St. Paul/Tartan. The home opener is Nov. 14 versus Champlin Park/Coon Rapids. Both start at 7 p.m. The SSC opener is Nov. 19 at Shakopee at 7 p.m.
Section 3AA also got a little stronger this winter with addition of Lakeville North coming over from Section 1AA. Eagan, Eastview, Apple Valley, Park, Hastings and Rosemount are also in the field.
Lakeville North won 17 games last year, losing in the Section 1AA final to Farmington.
East Ridge beat Eagan in the Section 3AA title game last year. East Ridge is now in Section 4AA. Eagan was the section champion in 2018.