The Rushmore Thunderdome located off of Highway 79 south of Rapid City has been buzzing with activity for the past few weeks.
With the fall chill subsiding to winter cold over the last few ways only one thing is on the minds of those who pass through the Thunderdome's doors: the youth hockey season is fast approaching.
Both the Rushmore Thunder's girls' and boys' varsity teams are faced with a new set of expectations and goals. For the girls' team, the goal is bring the program back to the prominence of a few years ago. For the boys' team, it's to raise another state championship banner that it thinks it should have raised last year.
Boys' team reloads for another state title run
In the rafters of the Thunderdome is a banner with the dates of the boys' varsity state championshp years. Every member of the Thunder believes that 2017 should have been on that banner as well, but it is not.
The goal under head coach Dick Novak is always to win a state championship, but last year the Thunder lost in the final 4-1 to Brookings.
Last year's team was made up of mostly juniors, so a large senior class returns this year with the same goal in mind: to right the wrongs of last season.
"We have lots of returning players, we lost some talented guys too," Novak said. "Most of our scoring is back and we have two really good defensemen in Tanner Good and Gavin (Gary) so we feel really good about where we’re at."
Novak said he hopes this group is feeling hungry after coming close last season but falling short its ultimate goal.
"There’s a lot of seniors and they’ve had a lot of success as pee-wees and bantams with winning state championships so I would think they’d like to finish their careers with a state championship too," he said. "It’ll be a lot of work and dedication, I know Sioux falls, Brookings, Pierre (Oahe), Watertown will all have solid teams so we definitely have to get after it."
If Novak was wondering if his team was going to come in hungry, he needs to look no further than Gavin Gary.
"We have a big appetite this year. When we lost last year it was a heart-breaker so we’ll be out there to try to get it this year," he said. "We’ve been playing all our lives so the chemistry we have is awesome. The love we show for each other is even cooler, it’s a brotherhood."
Center Ryan Nolan agreed with his teammate, saying he is confident in the team that has been assembled for the 2017-18 run.
"I’ve known these guys since the beginning so getting to play with them has been great," he said. "There’s definitely more hunger, but every year we try to do the same thing, hopefully we can do it this year."
Rushmore played in a tournament in Omaha where it went 1-3 earlier this season, with losses to larger metro areas like Sioux City, Omaha and Kansas City. Novak said despite not getting the results he wanted, he was happy with how the team played.
"We didn’t do so well but we played pretty good. We played some good hockey without any practice at all," he said. "We need to play good team defense, that’s always really important. Goals will come , but as long as we play solid defense and keep the other team off the boards we’ll be in every game."
The Thunder will host the Rushmore Rendezvous tournament Nov. 17-19 and will begin South Dakota Amatuer Hockey Association League play Thanksgiving weekend with a trip to Sioux Falls.
'This is a completely new team'
Where the boys' varsity team brings back plenty of experience, the girls' team is working with a new cast of characters from last year's team that finished sixth in the SDAHA standings.
According to head coach Brady Pinney, that might not be a bad thing.
"I think (last year) was a learning process, a year to get better," he said. "I think they’re definitely going to improve in the standings. Where we end up, I don’t know. But the girls are working hard, they have a good attitude. If we can get them here and get them committed to working hard and getting better every day we’ll see where we end up at the end of the year."
The team only has two seniors, defender Caitlyn King and left wing Darcy Paschke. Although the team has some girls who have never played hockey before, both King and Plaschke said they can already tell that this group is more committed to getting better than last year's group.
"This is a completely different team. Last year we had girls who just wanted the season to be over with, we had some drama that came back from the past few years so it’s exciting to see the connection this year that we all have together, immediately we’re a family," King said. "We want to be the best team we can be, we want to be the hardest working team, that;s the biggest thing. We want to work our butts off no matter what."
Both girls have been playing for nine years, so a lot of the leadership has fallen on them to teach the new girls the fundamentals of hockey.
They don't mind doing it, because according to Plaschke they can both see that the girls want to get better and are willing to put in the work.
"They’re all showing up to practice and working their hardest," she said. "It’s getting them used to what hockey is and teaching them the positions they need to learn, but they’re all willing to. After one practice they seem to know what they’re doing."
Aberdeen has won the last three girls' state championships, and Pinney said Sioux Falls is always known for fielding competitive teams. Two or three years ago, he said that Rushmore was right there with the giants of the state.
He didn't go as far as to say that the Thunder will get back to those heights this season, but he was optimistic about the change in attitude he's seen in just one year.
"Mainly we want to outwork everybody. I think just doing that is going to improve the standings," he said. "I think if these girls put their mind to it they can compete with whoever they want to, but it’s ultimately going to be up to them. There isn't really a specific goal in mind with ‘we want to get this place,’ but the goal is definitely to improve.
"Our team may not be the most skilled, but these girls work hard. That's fuin for me to watch, I'd much rather have girls who work really hard rather than who are skilled and don't care. It's a lot easier to work with a kid who has the work ethic."
Rushmore begins its season with the three-time defending champs, Aberdeen. It will host them at the Thunderdome Thanksgiving weekend.