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Duluth East’s hockey players might not consider it significant praise, but coach Mike Randolph declared that this season’s Greyhounds are the “best practice team I’ve ever had, in all my years of coaching.”
But from a coach’s perspective — at least, an outstanding coach’s perspective — that is the highest of praise. Many coaches, like many players, work at practice, but they live for the games. The practices might be drudgery, but something you must get through to get to the next game. Coaches can feel the same, knowing they have to work on certain things for improvement, but living for the games.
An outstanding coach like Randolph, however, enjoys the coaching part of hockey probably more than the games. He always has a plan, with objectives that must be stressed for individual and team improvement, and he works intensely to accomplish those objectives. That coach’s ideal team is one that is as eager to work hard and intensely in practice as he is, and as soon as the positive reinforcement kicks in, where the players realize that by executing what they learned in practice leads to success in games, the result is winning.
It is significant that Randolph’s comment about his team came Monday, the same day East moved up in Let’s Play Hockey’s state rating to the No. 1 spot, having beaten Minnetonka 4-2 Saturday afternoon in Minnetonka to stand as the state’s only undefeated team. That also was the day East had to come off that high at knocking off No. 1 Minnetonka to face Denfeld at Essentia Heritage Center. Denfeld, under new coach Dale Jago, is restructuring things, and has to build from a youthful team to become competitive with a powerhouse Class AA team like the Greyhounds. But whenever East shows up, Denfeld’s players seem to play their best.
That was what concerned Randolph. “This is a ‘trap’ game for us,” Randolph said. “We just came through a string of games against really tough teams, through the Minnetonka game, and Thursday we go to Grand Rapids, then Saturday we go to Eden Prairie. This Denfeld game comes right in the middle of that string, and our guys might think they just need to show up.”
Hardly. The Greyhounds hit the ice sizzling, outshooting Denfeld 26-3 in the first period and gaining a 4-0 lead. In the second period, the high-flying Greyhounds seemed to click on every pass and wound up with goal-mouth plays that gave the Hunters no chance but to be the Hunted. East outshot Denfeld 19-2 in the second period, and poured in six more goals for a 10-0 lead that assured the third period would be in running time.
When it was over, East won 13-0, and word was Randolph told his top guns to quit shooting in the third period, or the shots might have been more lopsided than the final 53-6 tally.
That boosted the Greyhounds record to 9-0-3, and while the trip to Grand Rapids would find the powerful Hounds a lopsided favorite over the Thunderhawks, Randolph would never take a game against Grand Rapids for granted. Rapids came down to Hermantown Tuesday and lost 1-0, but first-year coach Chris Marinucci has obviously tightened the Grand Rapids team’s play significantly from the start of the season.
Randolph, who gained his 600th career coaching victory earlier in the season, gave this year’s club a much more blatant bit of praise when he said it is one of his favorite teams he’s ever coached, right up there with the two state champions he’s coached.
He also compares this team to the spectacular Dave Spehar-led East team that won the 1995 state title. Like that team, and the 2011 team that lost a three-overtime classic final to Kyle Rau’s hurtling goal for Eden Prairie, this team is ignited by an explosive first line. The 2010-11 team had Jake Randolph, the coach’s son, at wing with Dom Toninato at center and Trevor Olson at the other wing. Randolph is a senior at Nebraska-Omaha, Olson is at North Dakota, and Toninato finished as captain at UMD and has gotten in some rookie time with the Colorado Avalanche.
This year’s team is led by the line of Ryder Donovan, a junior 6-foot-4 speedster at center, flanked by two seniors, 5-foot-8 sparkplug Garrett Worth on one wing and 6-foot-2 Ian Mageau on the other.
Against Denfeld, Worth got three goals and an assist, Donovan scored two goals and added five assists, and Mageau had five assists. Junior Ricky Lyle also had a hat trick.
It wasn’t as if that top line was pouring it on against Denfeld; they’ve scored with similar regularity against all comers. Worth, in fact, got rolling on a hot streak with a goal against Marshall, then got three second-period goals against Lakeville North, added both goals in a 2-2 overtime tie with Blaine, and scored two more at Stillwater, two more against Minnetonka, and three against Denfeld — 13 goals in a six-game scoring streak.
Randolph’s coaching plan is to let his players go through the first month or two of the schedule, just so he can observe their talent, intensity, team concept, and personality. He probably puts more emphasis on personality than other coaches do, which is something he learned years ago, playing on some superb Duluth Cathedral teams under legendary coach Del Genereau.
“Del was the best ever at putting guys together for chemistry,” Randolph said. “I’ve never forgotten what he taught us, and that’s what I like about this team. Look at Worth. He loves the game. He’s spent hours practicing and playing outdoors — that’s how he’s gotten to where he is. He makes plays, including some unbelievable plays, but he loves to score goals, and he’ll go to the ‘dirty’ areas to score.”
Randolph doesn’t put any emphasis on being the state’s only undefeated team, just as he had to be told when he reached the 600-victory pinnacle. He feels the same way about being ranked No. 1 in the state. And he’s learned, through all his years, that no number of victories can insulate a team from a painful loss at a bad time.
All he can do is prepare his players to play their best every time they hit the ice, and they’re halfway there.