East-Andover make 7AA final like old times

John Gilbert

Luke Loheit follows through for the first goal in UMD's 3-2 first-game victory over Miami of Ohio. Photos by John Gilbert.

It will be like the good old days at AMSOIL Arena Thursday night, when the Section 7AA championship is decided between Duluth East and Andover. Ever since the 1960s, the “Region 7” — in those days — final was always the biggest sports even of the season and often the best hockey game of the year.

Andover displaced East as the dominant factor in 7AA the last few years, as ,ugh by East’s demise as the Huskies emergence, but make no mistake, Andover earned its pure with a state title as our “Northern” representative. That also left Hermantown as the best true Northern team, even though the Hawks refused to represent 7AA and seem to enjoy staying far above the area’s — and the state’s — Single-A category.

But the story of the year in high school hockey has been the resurgence of Duluth East, where coach Steve Pitoscia, in his second season since replacing Mike Randolph, has found the key to unlocking the slumbering giant that had been hibernating in the Greyhounds dressing room. To his credit, Pitoscia gives all the credit to his players, most notably Cole Christian, who made the determination to dedicate himself and try to lead his teammates back to the prowess they had witnessed while growing up in the East End.

“I couldn’t be prouder of a kid than Cole Christian,” Pitoscia said. “He always had the talent, but he never seemed to get it focused, but he came back this summer with a completely different mindset. It wasn’t personal, it was all about the team, and every player seemed to get on board.

“Every one of these kids grew up watching the Greyhounds win and be a contender every year,” Pitoscia said. “And they knew they had gone through a disappointing season two years ago and they were bad again last year. They wanted to lift the program back up to where it used to be. They came back last summer and they were all dedicated to working every day, all summer, to get ready for this season.”

Not that it was automatic, and while they figured out who was on their line, the Hounds lost to White Bear Lake, St. Thomas Academy, and Grand Rapids before getting their first victory, 5-3 against Bemidji. Then there was the rude awakening of an 8-2 loss to Eden Prairie, before East stunned Andover 5-1 at Essentia Heritage Center, sending shockwaves through the State of Hockey with a 3-goal second period for a 4-0 lead. Could East be that good?

Duluth East's Cole Christian gets a full flex-on slapshot against Coon Rapids.

Tests were everywhere, because teams like Marshall, Denfeld, Cloquet, Grand Rapids and Superior were all planning to make up for the years of being beaten, often badly, by East. But one by one, the Greyhounds reaffirmed their objective, beating Marshall 7-0, Grand Rapids 6-0, Denfeld 4-0, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 8-1 and, after a 4-0 victory over Superior, the Hounds won a 6-4 rematch at Cloquet.

Since losing to Eden Prairie, East went on a 15-1-1 rampage through the end of the regular season, and now have strung that out to 17-1-1 with a 5-0 quarterfinal romp against Blaine and a 4-1 semifinal over Coon Rapids to send them into the Thursday night showdown with Andover for a spot in next week’s state tournament.

The players are not the only dedicated members of the Greyhounds. Pitoscia tried to dodge the question, but he clearly has gotten himself into much better condition. “Just riding the bike around,’ he said, downplaying in. But when cornered, he admitted that he had lost 120 pounds firm last season. “I feel great,” he added. “I’m a better coach, too. Now, when I go down, they don’t have to worry about the rink shutting down!”

Switching to the other dressing room, Andover coach Mark Manney was ready to throw his hands up in the air after that 5-1 loss to East, saying it was a new season, the defending state champs were unpredictable game to game, and that he’d have to wait and see if they got it together. They did. After crushing Marshall 11-0, the Huskies beat Grand Rapids 5-0 to reach the 7AA final.

In that game, the Thunderhawks administered, and mostly got away with, pounding on Andover’s first-line center, Gavyn Thoreson. They knocked him down every time they got near him, during play or after whistles, and they never once got called for it. Yet Thoreson, who is as tough as he is speedy and deceptive, simply got back up and slept playing, never complaining. In the AMSOIL Arena seats, Grand Rapids parents and fans yelled, “Get him! Get him!” every time Thoreson hit the ice, as if the entire West Range knew the game plan. All he got was a goal and two assists.

“I guess they want to shut me down and get me off my game,” said Thoreson afterward. “I guess I’ve done pretty well against them. But we’ve got a balanced team, and we’re playing much better now.”

Thoreson’s play has not gone unnoticed. He has a scholarship to play for Brett Larson at St. Cloud State.
Coach Manney’s patience has been a factor this season maybe more than ever. “I tell everybody what I always say,” Manney said. “If you want to win in March, you can’t be afraid to lose a couple games in December. We weren’t panicking back then.”

Just like the old days, the Section 7AA championship game will be turf war, with both teams focused on speed and skill. The Andover coach said there’s no revenge motive for that 5-1 loss to East, but the Huiskies star player said there definitely will be thoughts of revenge. “Ever since that big loss, we all know how bad we played and we definitely want to make up for it.”

It was fun to spend last Saturday in AMSOIL Arena, where the two 7AA semifinals were held at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., followed at 5 p.m. buy UMD’s women finishing a 2-game sweep of St. Cloud State in the WCHA quarterfinal round of the WCHA tournament. That made it sweeps for all four of the top seeds, who now advance to Ridder Arena for the semifinals and final — which will be Friday and Saturday this year, after traditionally being held Saturday and Sunday of state tournament week.

The closeness of the finish between Ohio State and Minnesota, with the Buckeyes getting first place by one point, means a lot because of the so-called “Big Three” the second and third-place teams have to play each other with the survivor then taking on the winner, if all goes according to form. UMD, however, throws a real kink into the form chart because while the Bulldogs weren’t ever in contention for the title, they did very well against Ohio State and even better against Wisconsin, and gave Minnesota fits, as well.

So while Minnesota and Wisconsin square off in the second semifinal, Ohio State must face the Bulldogs in Friday’s 1 p.m. first semifinal at Ridder. The winners meet Sunday for the league playoff title and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, so red-hot goaltender Emma Soderberg needs to come up with another strong weekend to give UMD a chance at the sure-thing slot in the NCAA Frozen Four — which will be held at AMSOIL Arena,

The UMD men had to settle for a split against last-place Miami, losing 4-1 Saturday in the concluding game at AMSOIL after holding on for a 3-2 victory Friday. Now the Bulldogs go to St. Cloud State to conclude the regular season this weekend, and there is a good chance the Bulldogs might have to return to St. Cloud for a best-of-three NCHC playoff series.

Lots of action still to come, but we may have seen the last of the Bulldogs men for the season unless they can get it all together to get past St. Cloud and make a run at the NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Excel Energy Center in St. Paul.

UMD's Mary Kate O'Brien (3) scored for a 3-0 lead in the 2-game sweep against St. Cloud State to reach WCHA semifinals.