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Rich and successful as the Hermantown hockey program has been, there is one thing that Hawk followers everywhere crave the most: To upstage Section 7AA powerhouse Duluth East at sectional or state tournament time. And this year, they might just have accomplished it.
There are no guarantees in high school hockey, especially as events such as the Section 7AA championship are decided. In this case, Duluth East — one of the most spectacular teams in Duluth hockey history — was to take on Andover in the annual Thursday night championship for a slot in next week’s state tournament.
The last remaining question is whether the two finalists can live up to the expectations they both created in the semifinals. All Duluth East did was to play their best game to annihilate a very good Marshall team 9-1 in Monday’s first semifinal. What that game lacked in being hotly competitive, the second semifinal more than made up for, as Andover withstood a spirited battle from traditional power Elk River and won 6-5 in overtime.
The Section 7A championship game figured to be interesting, too, with the best and most challenging Greenway of Coleraine outfit taking on the Wednesday night challenge against Hermantown, which has dominated 7A for a decade. But it’s unlikely the Hawks and Raiders could outdo the most significant news out of their semifinal victories at AMSOIL Arena.
After Hermantown had scored on the first shift and methodically dismantled International Falls 6-0 in the first semifinal, I couldn’t resist discussing the situation with first-year Hawks coach Pat Andrews. For about a decade, it was a familiar discussion with legendary Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, and he always deflected questions about his Class A super-power moving up to take on the big boys in Class AA by saying the Hawks could compete some years, but not every year, so they were staying in A.
New coach, new discussion. I apologized beforehand to Andrews, and said the 6-0 romp over International Falls was the perfect evidence of why the Hawks should move up. International Falls was a very good Class A team, good talent, not a lot of depth, two lines mostly, but all the high hopes of everybody who pulls on a hockey jersey anywhere in the state. Unfortunately for the Broncos, they were facing a very good Class AA team in Hermantown, which scored three in the first, two in the second, and coasted in during the third.
Pat Andrews, who is as direct with the media as he is with his players, surprised me by agreeing with my view.
“My hope,” he said, “is that we will be Double-A within two years. It’s time. We can compete. And if we can’t compete every year, nobody can. Of course, I’m just the coach, in my first year, but I’m going to do everything in my power to see if we can make the move.”
Imagine! Such a move by Hermantown could save the integrity of Northern Minnesota hockey. With teams like Elk River and Andover having to come all the way to Duluth for semifinals and finals in Section 7AA, the drop in attendance of Northern high schools was threatening to make the state’s finest tradition of Northern hockey almost an afterthought to the huge and growing Twin Cities suburbs.
When Marshall made the move up from Class A to Class AA, it helped. That left Hermantown alone, as the burgeoning giant among hopeful but thin smaller programs that became annual stepping stones for the Hawks to the state tournament. Marshall’s move gave 7AA nine teams, with Cambridge-Isanti, and if Hermantown makes the move to AA, Elk River and Andover can stay in the Northern Suburbs competing in sectional play where they belong, and 7AA will still have its eight teams.
It takes protocol to make such a move, and it can only happen every two years. With Andrews leading the way, Hermantown can make it happen and can help save 7AA while also giving new life to 7A.
In the second 7A semifinal last Friday, Greenway of Coleraine and Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl brought in solid, strong Class A teams, with surprising skill levels to those who haven’t been watching them. That includes the Mr. Hockey folks, who, I must suggest, missed a potential winner in Virginia’s Jake Seitz, who has scored multiple goals in multiple games throughout the season, and is a skilled set-up artist with deft passes. Greenway shut him down in the semifinal match and beat the Blue Devils 5-1, although the game was much closer than the score.
Virginia, in fact, led 1-0 after a period, but Ben Troumbly’s goal and two by Nikolai Rajala vaulted the Raiders to a 3-1 lead and Wes Johnson and Gavin Newton put it away with third-period goals.
After the game, I was so dazzled by Seitz and his phenomenal stickhandling tricks, I asked Virginia coach Reed Larson if he has seen any players with the outright skill of Seitz. Just then, the victorious Raiders walked past the Blue Devils dressing room area, and one of the players paid his respect to Larson.
“There were at least three of the state’s best players in this game tonight, and that was one of them, right there,” Larson said, nodding toward Greenway’s Donte Lawson. “And in two years, Chris Miller will be an NHL draft pick.”
Miller is only a sophomore, but he bristles with talent, as does Lawson, and several other players on both sides of that game. Seitz, however, is one of the state’s most prolific scorers, but because Virginia-Mountain Iron-Buhl is on the Iron Range, and doesn’t spend much time within the reach of the Twin Cities media spotlight, he was not nominated to be considered for Mr. Hockey.
“He’s a fun player to watch,” said Greenway coach Grant Clafton. “We were successful in keeping him off the scoresheet tonight.”
We’ve been very lucky in Northern Minnesota to see players like that, as well as the Duluth area standouts at Duluth East, Marshall, and Cloquet. We could have our own Northern Minnesota Mr. Hockey, in fact.
Marshall, with its “Big Four” of Levi Stauber, George Grannis, and defensemen Willy Stauber and junior Peter Hansen, was primed and ready to take down Duluth East, with its rich four lines of attackers and three sets of defense, as well as late-blooming goaltender Parker Kleive. They had played a monumental regular-season game, which East won 3-2 in sudden-death overtime.
“But that was a long time ago,” said East coach Mike Randolph, after his Greyhounds had routed the Hilltoppers 9-1 with what might be called a perfect game.
Sparkplug Garrett Worth, triggerman on East’s big first line, opened the scoring with a goal at 4:25, jamming his own wide-left rebound in. Just 1:21 later, Ricky Lyle scored, and then Brendan Baker made it 3-0, before Lyle scored again for a 4-0 first period. Lyle completed his hat trick in the first minute of the second period.
Finally, after the early assault rocked them back on their heels, the Hilltoppers struck when Levi Stauber scored. It was a slick play, with Grannis rushing, dropping the piuck to Nolan Krenzen, who fed the slot for Levi Stauber’s blast. But East stormed right back on offense, with Austin Jouppi made a diving conversion of a rebound in the crease, and Ryder Donovan circled the entire offensive zone before closing in from the right circle and drilling his shot.
That made it 7-0 after two periods, and if the Toppers and the crowd was in shock, the Hounds wanted more. Worth got his second of the game, and 42nd of the season, in the first minute of the running-time third period, and Logan Anderson added the final tally for the 9-1 final.
“Yes, our first line is impressive, but so is our second, and third, and we’ve got a pretty good fourth line, too,” said Randolph. Lyle has had a great year, and we were hitting on all cylinders.
“And let’s not forget, that’s an outstanding team down the hall,” Randolph added, gesturing toward the still-closed Marshall dressing room. That 7 (Grannis) is a heck of a player, and 21 (Levi Stauber) is a heck of a player, and 20 (Willy Stauber) is a heck of a player. But we’ve got a lot more depth, and everybody was going tonight.”
Lyle, who doesn’t seem to seek the spotlight, but often supplies the power to light it, said, “We knew we had to come out strong at the start of every period.” He added that this was his third hat trick of the season, with the others coming against Forest Lake and Elk River. He’s the kind of player, Randolph said, who doesn’t have to score fancy goals. He’d rather go into the midst of a goal-mouth scramble and when they unpile, he’s the one with the goal. Or three.
At 22-2-3, the Greyhounds have all the momentum in the world. Which guarantees them exactly nothing in the 7AA final against a very strong and swift Andover team.