Northern Star: Taylor Nelson and Kiana Bender

The duo has led Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in scoring for the past three seasons.

CLOQUET, Minn. – Taylor Nelson and Kiana Bender have been key contributors to the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls hockey team this season, and their connection goes beyond being linemates.

“We met when we were in boys hockey in like squirts or whatever. We were the only two girls on the team so we kind of just had to be friends and we’ve been best friends ever since. We always hang out and know each other by heart,” Bender said.

The friends became starters for C-E-C varsity during eighth grade and were in the top three for points on that team. Since then, the two have been in the top two spots for the Lumberjacks in goals, assists and points. Currently, Nelson is tied for 12th in the state in goals scored and Bender is 10th in the state in assists.

“It’s nice being able to play with somebody that works just as well with you and you get. She gets open and then we make things happen and it’s just awesome,” Nelson said.

Over the years, they’ve learned each others strengths and how to best make plays happen.

“She can score a lot, pick her spot and shooting when she can,” Bender said of Nelson.

“She’s a really aggressive, hard–working player. She can shoot the puck hard and it’s nice to have her with you on the line,” Nelson said of Bender.

While they’re both providing the offensive spark that currently has the Lumberjacks ranked 9th in Class A, they’ve grown as leaders for this very young team.

“Biggest thing that I have seen in those players has been confidence. They’ve always been very skilled players but as they have grown and continued to take on leadership roles and become a little more impactful on the ice in terms of ice, you can see the leadership in that has spread throughout the team,” head coach Courtney Olin said.

Nelson and Bender have the rest of this season and next to play together in the purple and gold and continue building upon the foundation they started when they were 10 years old.

“They’re great friends off the ice but on the ice, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. They’re their biggest competitor. They choose to battle each other all the time and if you were just watching in the stands, you wouldn’t necessarily know they’re best friends on the ice,” Olin said.

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