Hilltoppers head to state behind new head coach

ONALASKA, Wis. — It’s been a long road to the WIAA State Girls Hockey Tournament for new head coach Eric Bugenhagen and the Onalaska Co-Op hockey team.

“November 7th when I came in for the first practice, I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” says Bugenhagen.

“But I had a plan.  We worked hard on skills and we worked on power skating.”

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Bugenhagen is a level 4 USA Professional Instructor and has taught power skating at a school in Minnesota for more than 8 years.

But there was also work to do off the ice.

“We had no pucks, no stats, and everything was 11 years old,” says Bugenhagen who along with parents had to fund-raise to buy new jerseys this seasons.

Then it was all about building on a plan.

“We had a core of players that are very skilled,” says Bugenhagen of a group that includes the states leading goal-scorer sophomore Theresa Knutson.

“But overall as a system, they didn’t have a system.  I want complete hockey players.   “You have to be able to play offense and defense in our system.”

It was easy for the team, half of which never played a varsity game before the season, to see their new head coach was dedicated.

Bugenhagen lives and works in Minneapolis, meaning he often makes 5-hour round-trips just to coach the team.  The self-employed Black River Falls native says the mild winter has helped, as does having family in BRF and Onalaska.  

“It shows he cares about us and wants us to do our best,” says Knutson who has 21 more goals then the next high scorer in the state.

“He’s never late, he’s always here,” adds junior Baylee Darling who scored the game-winning goal in Ona’s sectional final game.

Another challenge for the team is the fact that half the team had never played a varsity game.

That includes goalie Jeanalyn Schindler who broke her ankle during her first practice freshman year.  She says Bugenhagen has improved the teams overall skills, but maybe nothing has been more important than the confidence he has instilled in them.

“At the beginning of the season, I have never heard a coach say we are going to State;  we are going to the State Tournament and we are going to win,” says Schindler describing Bugenhagen’s early season message.

The top-ranked Hilltoppers have the chance to prove their new coach right this weekend as they carry an unbeaten record in Wisconsin to the semifinals against Kettle Moraine.