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Dakota United heading to state tournament

Andy Herrmann covers his goal during practice. He is Dakota United's starting goalie and team captain. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)1 / 2
Michael Froehling guards his goal during practice. He is a defenseman. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)2 / 2

This Friday, the Dakota United Hawks will play their first games of the adaptive floor hockey State tournament. Both teams have earned the No. 1 seed in the South Division.

Dakota United is a program serving athletes with physical or cognitive disabilities that prevent them from playing sports on their schools' conventional teams. Students from schools across the region join to compete against other adaptive teams in the state. They play on either the CI (cognitively impaired) team or the PI (physically impaired) team.

CI team

"We had an outstanding season," said Dana Beck, head coach of the CI team.

In the regular season, the Hawks trounced the competition. They're headed into the state tournament with a 12-0-0 record.

This year's team has a lot of depth; about half of last year's players are back to make another run at the state championship.

"So they're really confident and quick to get to the puck," Beck said.

Last year the team won its conference title and placed third at state; the year before they won the state championship.

This year, Beck has a strong starting lineup, including a talented eighth-grader from Dakota Hills Middle School, Carl Fagre, and Joe Sandey from Apple Valley High School. Both play defense. Andy Herrmann, from Hastings High School, is the senior team captain. He's been playing goalie for a while, Beck said, and she's hoping he'll be able to keep the scores low for those teams they'll play this weekend.

"He's really made some good defensive blocks," she said.

Herrmann has been with the team four years. He started on the junior varsity squad, but moved up to varsity after just a few games of his second year.

On Friday, the Hawks will face the No. 4 seed of the North Division, Mounds View.

"The North conference is usually pretty tough," Beck said. "We know we're going to have a pretty good challenge."

How to prepare for the tournament has been one of the more difficult tasks, Beck said. One way they've prepared for it was by inviting Dakota United alumni to play them, so the kids get an early taste of the level of competition they'll be up against.

Herrmann has no doubts about how his team will perform.

"We're going all the way," he said.

"The only thing I have to worry about is one game at a time, one shot at a time, one goal at a time."

PI team

At the beginning of the season, head coach Brett Sadek wasn't sure what to expect of Dakota United's PI team, he said. The team lost seven seniors from last year, including four or five wheelchair players. PI rules require at least two wheelchairs on the floor at all times.

Despite the uncertainty, the Hawks came through, putting up a 9-1-1 record in the season to earn the No. 1 seed in the South PI division. Their only loss was a 4-2 defeat at the hands of Robbinsdale, which is the No. 1 seed in the North Division, and not a team the Hawks usually play.

Their first state tournament game will be Friday against Anoka. Sadek doesn't know a lot about the North Division teams, other than the scores they've posted over the season.

"We're going to expect that they're going to be really good," he said.

His team's strength is in their passing, he said. The athletes are able to move the puck well and make nice plays. This group also has a few "very talented" forwards.

Some players Sadek is counting on are Eric Liggett, a back center who has been playing with the Hawks for six years.

"We kind of count on him to direct the ship," Sadek said.

Two Rosemount players are proving to be formidable scorers. Grayson Nicolai is the team's leading scorer, and a seventh-grader. In nine games he's scored 24 goals for the Hawks. Junior Tony Breyer has been playing three years, and this season has 20 goals and 20 assists to his name.

Two Hastings players are anchoring the wheelchair base. Brandon Mathiowetz is in his fourth year, and Liz Kimmes is in her first year. Both are seeing a lot of playing time, Sadek said.

More than a win

Adaptive athletics are just as competitive as conventional athletics, and there's a strong element of teamwork and support.

"No one's ever complaining," Beck said.

"They really just want to please you and work hard."

One example of just how supportive the athletes are occurred at a CI game against Winona in February. The Hawks were leading 9-4 with just two minutes left in the game. Beck and her assistant coach, Brett Kosidowski, called a time out and told their players to do the one thing they've been taught not to do: give the puck away to an opposing player and let him shoot it into their goal.

The Winona player's birthday was that day, and he had spent the game pretty much frozen in place. The Hawks won the faceoff and passed directly to the Winona player. They passed it to him again when he shot the puck back toward them. The Hawks' goalie called for the player to shoot toward him, and after a few tries, Winona got its goal. Both teams joined in celebrating the shot.

Even across teams, the kids get to know each other and become good friends, Beck explained, since most of them play each other year round not just in floor hockey, but also in soccer and basketball as well.

"You can see how much they cared," Beck said.