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Midgets boys hockey looks to build off last season’s state tourney berth

Due to the early-week blizzard, the Dickinson High boys hockey season-opener against Williston has been postponed, so the Midgets must now wait to begin their season until Thursday at the earliest.

Dickinson High senior Jerzy Martin chases after the puck in a game on Jan. 23 against Bottineau-Rugby at the West River Ice Center. (Press File Photo)
Dickinson High senior Jerzy Martin chases after the puck in a game on Jan. 23 against Bottineau-Rugby at the West River Ice Center. (Press File Photo)

Due to the early-week blizzard, the Dickinson High boys hockey season-opener against Williston has been postponed, so the Midgets must now wait to begin their season until Thursday at the earliest.

It came as disappointing news for a team with high expectations this season and, as head coach Dallas Kuntz said, is getting tired of playing against itself. The Midgets are ready for action.

"It's been a great few weeks of practice, but I think it's time that we want to get out there and compete - stack up and see where we're at," Kuntz said.

After losing in the first round of the West Region tournament last season, the Midgets rallied to win the next two games and snuck into the state tournament as the No. 4 seed for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Dickinson finished 10-14 overall.

The Midgets don't intend to surprise anybody this season, but they do intend on making it back to state and sticking around a little while.

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"I think we should be a top-four, top-three team in our region with what we have," Kuntz said. "Just getting to the state tournament isn't enough for us now. We want to go there, and we want to succeed. We want to be playing on Friday night in a semifinal game, not Friday morning. The bar's been set; the boys know that."

Among those leading that charge is senior forward Jerzy Martin, who was second on the team in points (42) last season, behind Michael McChesney (66). Martin knocked in 21 goals last season and had 21 assists. He, much like his teammates, share the same sentiment that Kuntz offered: the state tournament is more of an expectation rather than a surprise this season.

"Coming from last year, I have the confidence that we'll be able to make it back again, considering what we have for numbers," he said. "It's my senior year, and I want to leave it all out on the ice. I'm going to put everything I can into this year and help us get back to state."

The graduation of McChesney and his state-leading 35 goals hurts, but the Midgets return plenty of scoring options. After Martin, Dickinson also brings back sophomore Ryan Bren, who scored 21 goals as a freshman; senior forward Dawson Kram, who scored five and assisted on 12 goals; senior defenseman Matt Tessier and his seven goals from a year ago; senior forward Tyler Kostelecky, who scored four and assisted on three; among others.

Maybe more important than the scoring, though, is the team's identity, which remains largely unchanged. Dickinson has far more skaters this year than it did last season, so it will have the benefit of a third and fourth line, but Kuntz expects last year's workmanlike attitude to still be present.

"He's not the biggest guy on our team, but Peter Pavek is an incoming player, a junior who played Bantam as a sophomore last year - lots of grit. We got the Treven Hopfaufs, the Tyler Kosteleckys, the Mike Heraufs, there's a lot of grit there," Kuntz said. "I really like our blue line also. There's a lot of experience back there. We got Kaymen Kitchen, Josh Stengel, Matt Tessier, Chris Zubke - all guys that bring a physical part of the game with them. We're going to ask everybody to play physical."

In goal, the Midgets will have senior Gabe Vaagen there for much of the time. Vaagen mostly backed up Greg Haataja last season, but the latter has since moved away, leaving sophomore Riley Wittenberg as the team's backup now.

"He's smart and really flexible, and I think he'll learn a lot this year," Vaagen said of his new understudy. "He's pretty young, but it seems like he's been doing pretty good."

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Martin's excited about the prospect that Wittenberg brings to the table, but he's a big fan of how Vaagen has looked in the preseason.

"I think this is going to be his year to shine," Martin said. "He's playing really well right now, and I think it's going to be a good year with him."

The team has lofty goals, to be sure, but to get back to state and compete, Kuntz said, will require making sure the Midgets are in sound shape during the regular season.

"First and foremost, we need to take care of our region schedule. We have to take care of the games that we're supposed to win in our region," he said. "We can't get swept by the Jamestowns (like last year) or split with the Mandans (like last year). We need to take care of our schedule."

Funny enough, with some intervention from Mother Nature - and barring any more - that schedule now begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Mandan.

All accounts say the Midgets are more than ready.

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