Being a first year head coach can be daunting.
Taking over for a program that placed second in the Class 2A State Tournament can be even more intimidating.
Jack Freeman isn’t shying away from the challenge of taking over for the retired Jim Ernster, who led the Brainerd/Little Falls Warriors to a 25-5-1 overall record and a two-overtime, runner-up finish in last year’s state tournament.
Helping ease the transition for Freeman, who spent the last five seasons coaching the River Lakes girls and boys programs, are familiar faces in assistant coaches Sandy Smith, Carl Sneep, Alex Citrowske and Tate Rusk. Landon Snider will man the goalie coach position after Toby Kvalevog also stepped down.
“That was what we were thinking for the kids,” Freeman said. “We wanted to make this as seamless of a transition for the kids as possible. To have some familiar voices and concepts that they're used to is a comfort thing. It’s me learning what they’ve done in the past and seeing things that I know we can adapt or change moving forward.”
So far Freeman doesn’t want to change much. Nor does he think he needs to. In fact, he hopes to continue with one key concept
“My biggest thing is I love the identity that’s in place right now in terms of the way that they work,” Freeman said. “We are owning that, recognizing that, honoring that and continuing to have that. Since they were in youth hockey, they’ve always taken on the identity that they’re going to be the hardest working team on the ice. That’s what is so great about this group is that they show up every day to the ice with that mindset. For me, it’s making sure we continue to have that. We have to keep that going here.”
Brainerd will have to keep that going without two of its top scorers in Cheyenne Abear and Abby Pohlkamp. Also absent from this year’s roster is last year’s team MVP Olivia King, who is now a goalie with the University of Minnesota Gophers.
King played 1,200:01 regular season minutes, the entire section tournament and most of the state tournament for the Warriors last year. The only other player to see time between the pipes was Breya Sawyer. The freshman played in four regular-season games and finished 1-0 with eight saves and one goal against.
Also looking for time in goal will be fellow freshman Emily Johnson.
“We have two young talented goalies,” Freeman said. “Both are ninth graders. Both are very good goaltenders for their age. There will be some learning curves. Playing a lot of varsity hockey will be new to both of them. The nice thing is we have a healthy competition going on between the two of them and they are two kids that really work at it and want to do well and they’re very talented to go with it.
“It is big shoes to fill, but they are competing for that job and both want to take on that role.”
Freeman feels confident in the depth of his defense led by senior Sophie Robinson, who posted five goals and 19 assists last season. Robinson has already committed to Dartmouth College.
Also back are junior Taylor Larson (14 assists), senior Emma Smith (4 goals, 6 assists), senior Jenna Nieman (3 assists) and sophomores Reagan Aus and Riah Stroot.
“Both Reagan and Riah got a taste of varsity last year,” Freeman said. “Jenna is a senior who has played a number of years and in multiple state tournaments, which is huge. We feel very comfortable in our defensive core with those six.”
Back to give opposing goalies fits is senior LIndsey Booth. Brainerd’s leading scorer in the regular season missed the entire playoffs with injury. She finished with 12 goals and 24 assists, including two game-winning goals.
Gabbie Smith also returns along with her 20 goals and 19 assists. Rounding out the top line will be junior Emma Booth, who tallied seven goals, five in the playoffs, and nine assists.
“We graduated some goals for sure in Cheyenne Abear and Pohlkamp,” Freeman said. “We graduated some goals off of last year’s team, but we have three forwards on our top line in Gabbie and Lindsey and Emma Booth that are some of the most talented players in the section so we think they will be very dynamic for us offensively.
“I really like our depth up front. I feel like we have a really strong second line with Lucy Peterson, Shaylee Stroot and Josie Kramer. All three played in the state tournament last year. Josie and Shaylee are two seniors who we are really going to look to to lead. Then our third and fourth line, they show up everyday and they are competing for that ice time. We feel like we have a third and a fourth line that are all varsity hockey players.”
Peterson tallied a goal in the state tournament to go with seven assists. Kramer finished the regular season with four goals and 13 assists and Shaylee Stroot posted four goals and 13 assists.
Brainerd defeated North Wright County 3-2 for the Section 8-2A title. However, North Wright moved out of the section. Alexandria, which opted up to Class 2A, moves into the section.
“Alexandria is going to be very strong,” Freeman said. “They make the move up to 2A and they opted up so that tells you right there that they feel really good with what they have currently and what they have coming up. They had a lot of success at the 15s level. We only have them on the schedule once this year, but that’s going to be a big game because it will be for double points for the conference.
“Roseau is going to be Roseau. That's going to be a huge test. Moorhead will be young and talented. They were successful at the 15U level last year. Buffalo and Bemidji, St. Cloud and Sartell are kind of unknowns for the section.
“Sartell has a tradition in the (Central Lakes) Conference. I think they had a six-year stretch where they were conference champs or co-conference champs. St. Cloud is always well coached. Fergus Falls is coming off a state tournament berth last year. They graduated quite a few, but they’ll be good. River Lakes and Willmar will be young and talented as far as the conference goes.”
Head coach: Jack Freeman, 6th year (1st with Warriors, 3 years River Lakes Girls, 2 River Lakes boys)
2018-19 record: 9-0 CLC, 25-5-1 overall, CLC champion, Section 8-2A champion, Class 2A State runner-up
Captains: Sophie Robinson, Gabbie Smith, Emma Smith
Assistant coaches: Sandy Smith, Carl Sneep, Alex Citrowske, Tate Rusk, Landon Snider