East gets back on impressive track

John Gilbert

It was clean, fast, and almost surgical, and when it was over, Forest Lake High School hockey coach Aaron Forsythe came up to Duluth East coach Mike Randolph in Forest Lake’s arena and said, simply: “What a team!”

There was no hostility, no animosity, just something approaching wonderment in Forsythe’s comment. Appearing rejuvenated and totally focused after having their perfect season shattered in a 9-3 blowout loss to Minnetonka last Saturday, the Hounds tic-tac-toed the puck around and through the mesmerized Rangers for a 9-0 victory Tuesday night.

Steven Holappa scored the first and last goals for East, the first from Hogan Davidson as the third line came through, and the last with assists from Kyle Campion and Domenick Bergeland for a fourth-line strike. Conner Valesano connected for the second line to make it 2-0 in the first period, before the sizzling first line scored, with linemates Dominic Toninato, Ryan Lundgren and Jake Randolph zipping passes around at high speed before Randolph fed from deep on the left side out to the slot, where defenseman Meirs Moore rifled a shot into the upper right corner of the net for a 3-0 lead.

In the second period, Toninato scored in the first minute and again at 3:13 to make it 5-0, prompting Forest Lake’s second goalie change in the game. Alex Toscano made it 6-0, and Lundgren sped down the ice to convert a Valesano set-up for a shorthanded goal and a 7-0 lead at the second intermission. The third period called for running time, which was about the only way to slow down the Hounds. Jack Forbort and Holappa added goals, as East outshot Forest Lake 32-11. There was no rubbing it in, or piling on the goals. All four lines scored, and the ill-informed critics who claim Randolph plays his first line “75 percent of the games,” as one insisted to me last week, can be excused for their foolish views -- because all four lines flew the way the first one usually does.

East is now 17-1 for the season, but there was even more big news for East this week. Jake Randolph, the coach’s kid, and one of the most creative playmakers in Duluth hockey history, and currently leads the Greyhounds in goals and points, accepted a scholarship offer from Dean Blais at Nebraska-Omaha on Monday. Blais made the trip to Duluth to talk to Randolph and Toninato before East’s practice on Monday. “I had seen the campus there before,” Jake Randolph said. “When Coach Blais came to Duluth and talked to me, I wanted to accept right away, but I held off so I could tell my dad, first. He said, ‘Well, go tell Dean right away.’ So I did.”

East lost its No. 1 rank to Minnetonka this week, which is just fine with the Hounds. They had stunned Minnetonka 6-2 in the Schwan’s Cup final, jumping ahead 5-0 in the first two periods. Payback, on statewide television on Hockey Day in Minnesota, was harsh, but not unexpected by Randolph. Consider that starting goaltender Dylan Parker had to sit out a two-week suspension that ended at Minnetonka, forward and top sniper Trevor Olson was out with a knee injury, defenseman Beau Hughes was also out with an injury, and senior defenseman Nate Repensky tried to play with a wrist injury that needs more recovery time, while Valesano, sparkplug on a line with Olson and Toscano, had to sit out with a peculiar major and game disqualification penalty assessed in East’s previous game, a 6-4 victory over Apple Valley. 

Those are just facts, not something for the Hounds to hide behind. “Minnetonka came out on a roll, and just kept coming,” said Mike Randolph. Another fact is that had East found a way to win that Minnetonka rematch, it would have been a supreme test, if East happened to face the Skippers in the state tournament, to try to beat them for a third time. As it is, the East players no longer need to play as though trying to protect an undefeated record. A loss, and particularly a harsh one, should make the Hounds focused on each game the rest of the way. And the Forest Lake game was a start. Olson and Repensky sat out and watched, but should be ready next Tuesday when East goes to Superior. Parker returned to the nets and got a shutout, while Valesano had a goal and three assists in his “comeback.”

Other East-related tidbits: Minnetonka may have been focused on revenge against East, but if so, they overlooked a proud Edina team that came back from a 6-0 thrashing at Minnetonka’s hands in the Schwan’s Cup semifinals to beat the Skippers last week -- a loss that didn’t prevent ranksters from lifting Minnetonka past East to No. 1. Minnetonka still must face Eden Prairie, Wayzata, and Edina once again, in conference play.

There has been some talk that East should play Hermantown, now the only undefeated team in the state, and the No 1 team in Class A. Duluth News-Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers, often seen at high school hockey games throughout the area (he added, sarcastically), wrote a whole column demanding they should meet. Another guy, Howie Hanson, actually wrote that Class A is “better” than Class AA this year. Please.  East plays the toughest schedule in Minnesota against Class AA teams, knowing the rugged competition will make the Hounds better, and also secure them the No. 1 seed in Section 7AA. I would love to see East play Hermantown; it would probably be a heck of a game. But should East drop Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Wayzata, Maple Grove, Moorhead, Centennial, Anoka, or Apple Valley in order to play Hermantown? The fact that cynics, critics, and ill-informed sports columnists should realize is that there is one way to assure that East would play Hermantown.  If the Hawks wanted to face the Hounds as eagerly as their backers want them to, the Hawks, who have a tremendous hockey program, can simply move up to Class AA.

In my opinion, any program that can compete in Class AA should play Class AA, and should be embarrassed to play in Class A. Look at the best teams in Class A:  Hermantown, St. Thomas Academy, Breck, Benilde, Marshall, and usually Warroad. In my perfect world, all private schools would have to play up in AA, which would take care of St. Thomas Academy, Breck, Benilde and Marshall. Hill-Murray, it should be noted, always has played up, and other private schools should follow suit. And the Class A teams that have the potential to play competitively with Class AA teams, such as Hermantown, or Warroad, should also opt up, the way Roseau did.