First-year Dodge County coach Eric Hofmann explains a new drill to his players. Photo by Loren Nelson
Senior defenseman Chad Mundy helps direct traffic at a recent Dodge County practice. Photo by Loren Nelson
Portions of practice are conducted using sticks with blades hacked in half, some of the Wildcats’ flow drills are so jumbled Xs-and-Os, criss-crossing-lines-and-arrows complicated NASA engineers would have problems navigating them properly and the play-for-Gatorade game “Juice Boy” is the preferred after-practice activity.
Yeah, it is understatement to say they are doing things differently down in Dodge County these days.
“The half-stick drill? I honestly had no idea what to expect,” said senior forward Drew Wohlfiel. “I thought, ‘How the heck is that going to work?’
“I figured, new coach, new stuff, I’m going to have roll with it and see how it goes.”
Even before the arrival of first-year Wildcats coach Eric Hofmann, whose non-traditional practices could best be described as 60-plus minutes of controlled chaos, Dodge County ranked among the state’s most unusual programs.
The amalgamation of six southern Minnesota high schools, Dodge County’s combined enrollment (2,172) pushes it into the state’s large-school classification (2A).
Make no mistake, though, this is small-school hockey.
Kasson-Mantorvile, a school with 561 students located just west of Rochester, is the largest of the six high schools in the co-operative (Byron, Dover-Eyota, Hayfield, Pine Island and Triton are the others) and supplies the bulk of the team’s players.
Many of the athletes who join forces on the ice rink in November have spent the previous two months pounding each into the turf as football foes playing for rival high schools. Team bonding is not an instantaneous process for the Wildcats.
“With three or four of us from Byron, and kids coming from other schools, I think it does take us longer to build team chemistry,” senior defenseman Tanner Keller said. “Especially with other sports – most of us play football so we don’t have a lot of time to practice together before the season.”
Throw in a new coach and revamped lineup from a season ago, and it should probably come as no surprise that the Wildcats are off to an 0-2-0 start with losses to Faribault (5-3) and Farmington (7-0).
Dodge County isn’t so much concerned with its start as it is replicating – or improving on – last season’s finish. The Wildcats almost engineered one of the state’s biggest upsets of the postseason when, as the No. 9 seed in the nine-team Section 1AA tournament, they were tied with No. 1 Lakeville South heading into the third period of their quarterfinal matchup.
Running mostly two lines, the Wildcats simply didn’t have the depth to keep up with the Cougars, who scored twice in the final period to win 4-2.
Wohlfiel and Keller were key cogs on that Dodge County team. Senior defenseman Chad Mundy, another of the Wildcats’ top players this season, was not. Mundy played last season for the Rochester Ice Hawks of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.
In another non-traditional move, when some top southern Minnesota players are looking at other playing options in the hope of gaining exposure, Mundy reversed course and rejoined his high school team.
Dodge County goaltender Dustin Stevens can usually be found on the ice after practice, participating in the team's popular "Juice Boy" shootout. Photo by Loren Nelson
While he said he enjoyed his experience with the Ice Hawks, Mundy said keeping up with his schoolwork – not to mention his lifelong friendships – became too difficult.
“I actually didn’t go to school until 11 o’clock in the afternoon,” Mundy said about juggling schoolwork and his practice schedule. “I would miss my first two blocks. So I was taking two classes online and then two school classes.”
Of all the Wildcats’ players, Mundy has been among the fastest to absorb many of Hofmann’s unique drills. It helps that Hofmann was a strength and conditioning coach for the Ice Hawks last season and has “borrowed” some of the team’s training concepts, including the “half-stick” drill.
“It was quite comical actually,” Mundy said about Hofmann’s unveiling of the drill. “He said, ‘You need to get an old stick and you need to cut the blade in half.’ Everyone was like, ‘What?’ I was saying, ‘You’ll see.’ ”
More than anything, Hofmann – who at age 25 is believed to be the youngest of the state’s 156 head coaches – pushes his players to have fun. There is the Joe Mauer drill, in which players feed each other airborne passes through the crease that require baseball swings to put the puck in the net.
And, finally, there is Juice Boy.
Hoffman didn’t dream that one up, but when his players asked if they could spend a few-post practice minutes playing a shootout-style game for Gatorades, he gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Anything stupid, with the littlest thing on the line, the kids love it,” Hofmann said.
Head Coach: Eric Hofmann (first year).
Schools in Cooperative: Byron, Dover-Eyota, Hayfield, Kasson-Mantorville, Pine Island, Triton
Combined Enrollment: 2,172
Colors: Blue, Black, White
Assistant Coaches: Brent Haala, Chris Ernest
Home Ice: Four Seasons Arena, Kasson
2009-10 Record: 12-14-1