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The Sky's the limit: Dodge County goalie has had tremendous career for 'Cats

Sky Hughes has been a three-year starter for the Dodge County girls hockey team. That career will come to an end soon, though the senior goalie hopes to lead the Wildcats on a long playoff run.

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Dodge County goalie Sky Hughes (00) is off to a strong start, allowing one goal per game and stopping 95.5 percent of the shots she's faced. (Post Bulletin file photo by Traci Westcott)

Jeremy Gunderson challenged his goalie one day prior to her first season on the Dodge County girls hockey varsity team to produce a save percentage of .940 or better that season.

A few days later his phone buzzed. Then it buzzed again. And again.

The text messages were from Sky Hughes, then just a sophomore goaltender who was competing for the Wildcats’ starting job.

“She started sending me text messages of all these goalies who were NHL All-Stars who didn’t have a .940,” Gunderson said with a laugh about Hughes, now a senior third-year starter at Dodge County. “At that time we knew she’s someone who watches the game and pays attention to the little details, and she was in it for the long haul as far as being a committed hockey player.”

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Hughes won that starting position as a sophomore in the 2018-19 season. She hasn’t let go of it since.

That attitude and commitment is what has made Hughes an invaluable part of the Wildcats team the past three seasons. She’s played nearly every minute in goal for Dodge County in that span, compiling career marks that stand up against some of the best the Wildcats have ever had between the pipes.

Hughes has a career record of 35-28-3, with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. She has also recorded 15 career shutouts. She’s allowed two or fewer goals in nearly 70 percent of her career starts (47 of 69).

In other words, Hughes gives the Wildcats a chance to win every time she’s in the lineup.

“Once she got on the ice with us and started working with us, we saw her drive for the game,” Gunderson said. “When somebody lives and breathes it, you know…”

Hughes lives and breathes it now, but she didn’t always want to be a goalie.

“I started skating when I was 5 years old and started (competitive hockey) in Girls City League (in Rochester) when I was 7,” she said. “I started out like everyone else, as a skater, but when you’re younger and when you’re starting (in youth hockey), you have to pass around the goalie pads and everyone takes a turn.

“I really didn’t want to play goalie at first. I told my dad ‘no, no way,’ but he helped me get into it and it stuck.”

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Now Hughes — who hopes to play college hockey next season, but has not yet made a commitment to a college program — can’t imagine playing any other spot.

She’ll be in the net again this week, when the Section 1AA playoffs begin. The No. 4-seeded Wildcats (10-8-0) hosts No. 5 Owatonna (15-3-0) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a section quarterfinal game at Dodge County Ice Arena in Kasson.

“We’ve had some good games and we’ve played really well this year,” said Hughes, who is 9-6-0 with a 2.32 GAA and .927 save percentage this season, “but it’s gone by really quickly. We started off a little slow but we’ve found our way.”

That comment is a proper analogy for Hughes’ career with the Wildcats.

She has turned out to be every bit as good as Gunderson anticipated she could be three years ago, but it hasn’t happened without some work on and off the ice. Hughes didn’t coast through the pandemic. She was a leader at team workouts once they were able to resume, but when no team workouts were allowed throughout quarantine periods, Hughes doubled down on her individual workouts and came into this season in the best shape of her high school career.

“She came in and said ‘this is a big year for me,’” Gunderson said. “She did a lot of things on her own and that’s what it takes to make a top hockey player.

“It’s nice when you get a kid and can see their maturity. She’s developed into an As and Bs student and knows that there’s life after hockey. She’s just a really good kid and it’s been great seeing her growth on and off the ice.”

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