KASSON — Jeremy Gunderson sees the hand-colored signs, the banners, the smiles on young hockey players’ faces when he glances across the ice during games at Dodge County Ice Arena.

The long-time head coach of the Dodge County girls high school hockey program knows what that means: The young girls holding those banners and wearing those smiles are the future of the Wildcats’ program.

“We have a ‘Hockey Buddies’ program set up where our older kids are all matched up with a youth player in Dodge County,” Gunderson said. “It gives those young kids someone to talk to about the game or equipment, and you see them in the stands with a banner that has their player’s name or number on it.”

The payoff — for the kids and for the Wildcats — is tangible. It’s hanging on the south wall of the arena on the Dodge County Fairgrounds. That wall, just below the scoreboard, is lined with 8-by-10 photos of all of Dodge County’s Division I and Division III college hockey players.

And there are plenty.

In fact, this season alone, 13 former Wildcats girls hockey players are playing college hockey.

“Every one of those players on our college wall, they were a Hockey Buddy and they had a Hockey Buddy who they looked up to at one time,” Gunderson said.

Two of the more prominent players on the Wildcats’ college hockey wall, Katie Robinson (Minnesota) and Dana Rasmussen (St. Cloud State), are playing at the Division I level. Gunderson and several other coaches and parents took a bus full of young Dodge County players to Minneapolis last month to watch Robinson and Rasmussen play against one another.

“Dana and Katie are still (being leaders) every day,” Gunderson said. “They took time to talk to all the kids, sign their programs and make it known that their roots are in Dodge County. They told the girls to take pride in where they play. They’ve shown you don’t need to go to Shattuck or Hill-Murray, you can play for the Gophers or at the Division I level by staying in your own back yard.”

It starts at the youth level in the Dodge County program, which includes seven school districts and nine towns. That the program’s success extends beyond just Kasson and Mantorville is evident when looking at the college wall.

The 13 former Wildcats playing college hockey this season come from seven different cities — Kasson, Dover, Byron, Rochester, Zumbrota, Pine Island and Blooming Prairie.

“The younger girls get to see there’s that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Gunderson said. “They might think, I’m just a small town kid from Dodge County, who’s going to make it out of here? But then you start going to these (college) rinks and looking and saying ‘she made it and she made it and she made it.’ Pretty soon they start identifying they can have the same goals and expectations.”

The Wildcats will likely have to make more room on the college wall in coming years. At least three seniors, Kennedy Kraus, Kayla Schubert and Malia Schubert, are all going through the recruiting process, and several underclassmen are drawing interest from college coaches, as well.

“They also get to talk to those players and the younger kids get to understand that the older kids didn’t make it to college hockey just by sitting on the couch,” Gunderson said. “They were shooting 100 pucks a day, utilizing the weight room, watching a lot of hockey, studying film.

“They learn from the older kids that it’s not just what you do in practice, it’s everything you do outside of practice, and also playing multiple sports, making different friends and teammates, learning different skills and a different way to compete and think in different sports.”

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