BROOKINGS — The Brookings Rangers are the three-time defending state champions of the South Dakota Amateur Hockey Association but their quest for a fourth straight championship has added an interesting wrinkle.
Coming into this weekend’s three-game homestand at the Larson Ice Center, the Rangers have rattled off a 14-0-0 record in conference play and a 19-0-1 record overall. With their lone blemish a 3-3 tie with Edina during the Minnetonka Junior Gold Tournament on Dec. 8, Brookings looks as dominant as ever heading into the season's final stretch.
“Obviously, our goal from the start of the year is to win the state championship and we’ve done a pretty good job at setting ourselves up for that,” Rangers head coach Garrett Gerstner said. “At this point, we’re just really trying to take it one game at a time, keep getting better every day and once that state tournament rolls around, we’ll see how we stack up.”
The key to the Rangers' success has been their defense, which has allowed just 19 goals in conference play this season. Goaltenders Egan Jensen (7-0-0, 0.86 goals against average, .937 save percentage) and Addison Ronning (7-0-0, 1.86 GAA, .887 save percentage) are the backbone of the group. Still, the Rangers' stable of defensemen have helped, allowing just 15 shots per game during conference play.
That stable is led by with plenty of experience. Captain David Brink has a goal and 11 assists and fellow senior Luke Honkomp has four goals and ranks third in the conference with 27 assists in conference play this season. With fellow seniors Chase Karch and Ren Jacobsen and sophomores Waylon Carroll and Cody Jacobson also contributing, the Rangers are battle-tested into the final stretch.
“As a coaching staff, we’re trying to preach structure within our game…but I would be lying if I said it didn’t help that we have a lot of guys who have been through it before,” Gerstner said. “We’re an older team, so they know what to expect. They know what we look for as a coaching staff. It helps to have that maturity on the back end.”
While the Rangers have had plenty of success on defense, they’ve also been able to remain an offensive juggernaut. The biggest question coming into the season was how the Rangers could replace Breck Hirrschoff, who led the state with 72 points last season and is now playing with the Sioux Falls POWER this winter. But the answer has come from several places.
Owen Schneider ranks second in the state with 22 goals, fifth in the state with 39 points and has 17 assists while Jacob Kahle has 20 goals, 15 assists and ranks ninth with 35 points this season. In all, the Rangers have 11 players with 10 or more points this season, which has created the chance for anyone to play the hero on a given night.
“I expected some of the guys like Owen and Jacob to step up,” Gerstner said. “But we’ve had some young guys that have stepped up and done a really good job. …They’ve really taken that opportunity and ran away with it.”
One of the players that Gerstner mentioned was sophomore Talon Hyde, who has stepped into the top line between Schneider and Kahle and recorded nine goals and 11 assists this season. Gerstner also credited Jackson Heller for finding his scoring touch with 11 goals this season while Jay Harris has anchored the power play with three goals and four assists with the man advantage this season.
While the success is impressive on its own, it’s had a degree of difficulty with most games being away from the Larson Ice Center. Eight of the Rangers’ last 11 games have been on the road but it hasn’t seemed to matter even as they’ve taken on some of the best teams in the state.
“We kind of preached to them with all of the games that this is going to be the gauntlet of our season,” Gerstner said. “That’s where we’re really going to find out of what team we were and they were ready for the challenge.”
The Rangers responded with a 3-2 win over third-place Sioux Falls West on Jan. 27 and won back-to-back games over Rushmore this past weekend, who sits in first place with 32 points but has played five more games than Brookings has this season.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Gerstner said of his team’s performance. “We go into every game expecting to compete and we want to win but we just want to play good hockey at the end of the day and those guys have done just that.”
The Rangers’ reward is a schedule that will be played mostly inside the Larson Ice Center over the next month. Brookings hosts Watertown on Friday night, Aberdeen on Saturday night and Brandon Valley on Sunday night to kick off a stretch where they will play six of their next eight games at home to close out the regular season.
By taking care of business, the Rangers can earn the top seed in the SDAHA Tournament, but even if they stumble, they will enjoy a home-ice advantage with Brookings hosting the tournament for the second straight year.
All of this has the Rangers excited for what’s coming next but as they look to win four straight titles for the first time in program history, their goal remains the same.
“I just want us to keep that same hunger throughout the entire month,” Gerstner said. “We’ve put ourselves in a really good spot up until this point but we need to continue to get better every day. When it comes to the state tournament, you never really know what can happen, so we just continue to get better every day, make sure we’re not taking any games or shifts off and just don’t take it for granted. We want to keep striving to get better.”