Northern hope: Hermantown, and…Andover?

John Gilbert

Forechecking got crowded as Hermantown's Blake Biondi chased linemate Ethan Lund behind the Denfeld goal in the Hawks 6-0 Section 7A final victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Forechecking got crowded as Hermantown's Blake Biondi chased linemate Ethan Lund behind the Denfeld goal in the Hawks 6-0 Section 7A final victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert

In one short year, it seems that decreasing enrollment and scarcity of elite players has knocked Section 7 from powerful to hanging on, with only Class A Hermantown to represent the North. But fear not, Northern

Minnesota hockey faithful — Andover is here to properly represent all that the North stands for in prominent hockey.

One short year ago, it appeared that “The North” had risen a wave of high school hockey resurgence, with Duluth East leading a strong AA field that also included Grand Rapids and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in AA,

to take on the Twin Cities North Suburban entries in 7AA. Perennial power Hermantown remained at the top of 7A, but Greenway of Coleraine, Marshall, Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl and a rising Denfeld were also making noise in Class A. Greenway, it turned out, upset Hermantown, denying the Hawks of making it to state for 10 straight seasons.

What a difference a year makes! East had a major drop-off in manpower, with two of only three returnees choosing to go play junior hockey this season, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton also lost manpower, and Grand Rapids remained strong, but with limitations. In Class A, Hermantown stood tall as perhaps the best Northern program, with no signs of slowing down — but also no interest in moving up to AA, where opponents know the Hawks could definitely contend.

That opened the door for Andover and Elk River to drive up Interstate 35 and knock off all comers to reach the 7AA final. And it wasn’t much of a final, as Andover blasted Elk River 8-1 to sweep into its first state tournament as the No. 1 seed. But Andover is not “just” a Twin Cities suburban power making a carpet-bagger-like sweep through the Northland. Coach Mike Manney bowed in tribute to Northern Minnesota’s rich hockey heritage, in fact.

“We’ve watched this team grow up, and we’ve had some major disappointments up here in the 7AA final,” said Manney, as he stood alongside the AMSOIL Arena ice sheet after capturing the elusive title. “I thought we were good enough to make it last year, but we lost in overtime to East in the final.

“We love to come up here for the regional, because there’s such a great tradition up here for hockey. I thought it was important for us to play the best Northern schools, because we’re representing Northern Minnesota at the state tournament. And we want to prove to them that we are going to be a good representative.”

In the 7AA final, Andover's Luke Kron was sent flying over Elk River goaltender Josh Kozial... Photo credit: John Gilbert
In the 7AA final, Andover's Luke Kron was sent flying over Elk River goaltender Josh Kozial... Photo credit: John Gilbert
...Kron sailed past Kozial... Photo credit: John Gilbert
...Kron sailed past Kozial... Photo credit: John Gilbert
 ...and crashed to the ice, but he jumped up and, seconds later, scored to ignite a 6-goal second period for an 8-1 Andover victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert
 ...and crashed to the ice, but he jumped up and, seconds later, scored to ignite a 6-goal second period for an 8-1 Andover victory. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Manney, always personable, has a solid staff led by Bill Thoreson, a former standout at Blaine, whose son, Gunnar, centers the second line this year. Gunnar Thoreson and first-line center Luke Kron scored two goals each in the 7AA final, when a 21-1 shot barrage in the second period resulted in six goals for an 8-0 stranglehold. Junior second-line wing Garrett Schifsky has 22 goals to lead that category on an extremely balanced Huskies offense, where Harrison VanderMay (16 goals), Kron (15), Nate Bauer (18), Thoreson (16), Hunter Jones (11), and defensemen Mitch Wolfe (11) and Mr. Hockey finalist Wyatt Kaiser (10) also have reached double figures for goals. Junior Will Larson and Wes Swenson share goaltending, with Larson taking charge in playoffs.

When Manney was a kid, his family moved to Bemidji, where he started playing youth hockey at the late age of 13. The family moved to Moorhead, where his level of play developed enough that he got a chance to play at Air Force Academy. He led the Falcons in scoring, and also advanced to a career as an Air Force pilot. Later, he became the pilot who flew Air Force One, for two years when Bill Clinton was president, and four years when George Bush was president.

When he retired, Manney moved his family back home to Minnesota and settled in Andover, where he volunteered to help coach Peewees, and then helped the new high school program get started. Eleven years

later, he is still there, having compiled an impressive 172-112-13 record. And now, he’s taking his team to its the first state tournament.

People across the state, and in the Twin Cities, may not be fully familiar with Andover and its amazing program, but that should change this week. The Andover girls won the state Double-A championship two

weeks ago, and the Andover boys could match that in what could give the term “breakthrough season” a whole new definition.

This Andover team is loaded with talent, led by super-defenseman Wyatt Kaiser, a Mr. Hockey finalist who has already accepted a scholarship to join two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth. He is one of 14 seniors leading the Huskies (24-3-1) into Thursday’s opening game against St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2), a team that came together late in the season, but is nothing if not tournament hardened. That is the first game of the Thursday evening bracket, which follows with Hill-Murray (19-6-3) taking on Moorhead (21-5-1) — two more tournament-hardened programs. In the afternoon, Blake (22-6) is making its first appearance as a Double-A tournament entry, and opens as No. 2 against Maple Grove (20-8), and Eden Prairie (22-5-1) faces Lakeville South (21-7) in a battle between two more experienced state tournament programs.

But in a rarity for a team making its first state tournament appearance, as well as representing 7AA, Andover was declared the No. 1 seed, ahead of Blake, Eden Prairie, Moorhead and the rest. Andover’s strong season does not leave Manney feeling like a rookie.

“Wyatt Kaiser has been such a force for us, and he’s been playing with all these kids since they were together as Squirts, Peewees and Bantams,” Manney said. “They were ranked No. 1 in the state as Bantams but they didn’t win the state title. It would be great for Wyatt’s team to win the state, because his sister is an outstanding sophomore on the girls team that won the Double-A state title, and these guys want to be able to celebrate along with them.”

There was no way to avenge its title-game loss to Duluth East, because the Greyhounds lost 1-0 at Forest Lake to finish under .500 for the first time in modern hockey history. Veteran coach Mike Randolph never finished below .500 in his 31 years, and recalled that the only time East was sub-.500 was when the school just started its hockey program 67 years ago, with a 3-5 record. It seems mind-blowing to consider any team playing over-.500 for 67 years, especially against the hand-picked independent schedule Randolph plays. This was the first time in nearly two decades the ’Hounds had to go on the road for the sectional quarterfinals.

“I know how devastated Mark was last year,” said Randolph. “I went downstairs after the second period of the final last week, and congratulated him for what a great team he has.”

In the 7AA tournament, top-ranked Andover romped past Marshall 9-0, then Forest Lake 7-0 and Elk River 8-1 when the competition moved to AMSOIL in Duluth. Six different scorers notched goals in the first two

periods of the final, when the Huskies led Elk River 8-0. The Elks had overcome their own previous 7AA disappointments by beating both Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Grand Rapids on the road in the first two rounds this year. But they lacked the weapons to challenge Andover.

“I think anybody could win it in Double-A,” said Randolph. “Picking the favorite is anybody’s guess. Andover appears to be the favorite, but it’s their first trip to the state, and everything is completely different when you get down there.”

Northern Minnesota’s home heritage might be to relish that there will always be a Hermantown, but there is more envy and scorn over the school’s stubborn resistance to move up to Class AA.  East’s program will stabilize while coming back, but Marshall, which only recently made the move from A to AA, faces a crossroads: Reportedly, there were only 20 hockey players enrolled at Marshall this season, and 12 of them are seniors. Speculation is that Marshall will have to find another school to to team with as a co-op next season, or could drop its hockey program.

Maybe that shouldn’t be a concern to the 7A schools, or maybe it should be. Scanning the entries in the Class 7A tournament showed: Denfeld, Ely, Eveleth-Gilbert, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keetwatin, Hibbing-Chisholm, International Falls, North Shore, Proctor, Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl — and Hermantown. If the quiz was to

select which program doesn’t belong among the others, it is, without question, Hermantown.

The Hawks domination was upset in an overtime thriller by Greenway last year in the 7A final. This year, Greenway had a thin crop with which to rebuild, and the best Denfeld team in two decades made it to the final. The Hunters made a stirring bid against the Hawks, trailing only 1-0 after two periods, before Hermantown erupted for five goals in the third period and a 6-0 victory, while outshooting the Hunters 50-10.

Hermantown is led by center Blake Biondi, a Mr. Hockey finalist, and junior defenseman Joey Pierce, both also committed to UMD, but in reality, the Hawks have endless depth with four lines and three sets of defensemen who can overrun foes.

Hermantown’s only three losses came against AA powers Eden Prairie, Lakeville South, and Grand Rapids, but Hermantown (21-3-4) was seeded only No. 3, where it faces an opener against Monticello (20-7-1). If the Hawks win, they could run into defending A champ and No. 2 seed St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1), which gained a 5-5 tie at Hermantown after the Hawks had built a 5-1 lead. The lower bracket features favored and No. 1 seed Warroad (26-2) against Hutchinson (19-8-1), and what should be a stirring finale between Mahtomedi (20-8) and Delano (22-6). If Hermantown goes all the way, it might require beating St. Cloud Cathedral and Warroad in the semifinals and finals to conquer the world — the world of Class A. If that happens, maybe the Hermantown administration and parents might look for a new world to conquer.

Those who believe success at the top is cyclical can point to Hermantown’s 7A final loss last year, but that was the only time in a

decade Hermantown failed to reach the state. And last weekend we saw a future projection of how Hermantown is not likely to fade came. It was the Triple-A Bantam regional tournament, for age 13-14 boys, held at Essentia Heritage Center in Duluth.

In the Triple-A Bantam tournament, the strongest development for future high school teams lined up — Grand Rapids, Moorhead, Cloquet, Duluth East, Brainerd, Bemidji, Roseau — and Hermantown. Hermantown defeated Bemidji 11-0 in its first game, then beat Grand Rapids 6-0, and then edged Moorhead 2-1 to automatically advance to the state Bantam tournament. Moorhead, which defeated Cloquet 8-2, and Duluth East 6-2. East came back to defeat Roseau 4-0 to gain another shot at Moorhead, but Moorhead won 6-0 to claim the second Northern entry in the state. Along with Hermantown.

By stalking through the top programs with Northern elite status, the deep, balanced and skilled Hermantown Bantams — led by the two sons of former UMD and NHL star Derek Plante — served notice that for Hermantown, the cycle will stay at the top.

As it now stands, Hermantown’s excellent program is the Goliath to the rest of 7A’s Davids, and moving up to AA would make Hermantown a team the rest of the region could pull for, while rejuvenating the strength of Northern Minnesota.

The state Class AA tournament is always more colorful when a Northern Minnesota team is entered, which means this year, a lot of observers must be keeping their fingers crossed for Andover.

“It would be a great way for this group of kids to end their high school days,” Manney added. “We’ve had good teams all along, and we’ve got a lot of nice trophies, but we’ve really never won anything like this.”