This is the eighth and final post in a series on the history of Duluth East hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.
In 2009, the Duluth East hockey team inaugurated a new home arena—the Heritage Center on the west side of Duluth—and hoped to erase the bad memories of three consecutive section semifinal losses. Sometimes, when a team emerges from a darker period and starts a dynasty, it involves an overtime thriller or a dramatic upset. Other times, however, the team in question is just so talented that it steamrolls anyone who might be in their way. The 2009 Duluth East Greyhounds fell into the latter category.
With four D-I defensemen, a Mr. Hockey finalist at forward, and three balanced lines, the Hounds were an obvious title contender. To be sure, they had their weaknesses; there were no clear second- or third-best forwards to support Max Tardy on the top line, and the goaltending was on the streaky side. They never reached #1 in the rankings; the Edina Class of 2009 was among the best in recent memory, Eden Prairie and Bloomington Jefferson put forth their strongest teams in years, and a loaded Blaine team slipped by East in an early January game. But the potential was certainly there, and East looked like a force in early-season shutouts over Minnetonka and Wayzata, and also in a cathartic, fight-filled thrashing of Cloquet that helped erase some bad memories.
The 2009 East team’s Achilles Heel was a tendency to control games on the shot counter without putting in many goals, an issue that highlighted their muddled collection of forwards and empowered opposing teams that managed to hang around. A January loss to Rochester Century highlighted this weakness, and the trend would revisit the Hounds in the section semifinals, when Forest Lake goaltender Paul Moberg did all he could take down the Hounds. Despite a 57-20 edge in shots, East needed an overtime goal from Jayce Paulseth to move on. The section final, however, seemingly put these worries to rest, as East sailed past Elk River 4-1, their relentless pressure and solid defense hearkening back to the great 1997 and 1998 East teams.
East claimed the 4th seed at State and drew a less-than-intimidating foe in Cretin-Derham Hall. But the Hounds’ weakness struck again; they completely dominated gameplay in the first period, but were unable to get the puck past goalie Ben Walsh. Two quick breakaways the other direction put the Raiders up 2-0, and they extended their lead shortly into the second. Finally, East struck back, and Walsh let in two fairly soft goals. At 3-2 midway through the second, it only seemed like a matter of time before East finally asserted itself. But they gave up another break the other way, and Cretin’s fourth goal took the air out of the building. Coach Mike Randolph benched goaltender Matt Cooper after giving up four goals on ten shots, plugged in sophomore JoJo Jeanetta, and tinkered with his lines, but to no avail. Cretin won, 5-2, handing East one of its most frustrating playoff defeats of the Randolph era.
Friday offered the long-anticipated Edina-Duluth East match-up, but it took place not in the semifinals, but in the consolation round at Mariucci Arena. The fate of the top-ranked Hornets, who’d also been dumped 5-2 the previous evening, reminded fans just how fickle the State Tournament can be. Randolph started Jeanetta in goal, and while Tardy logged a hat trick in his final game as a Hound, it wasn’t enough; Edina won a penalty-strewn game, 6-4. The Hounds’ season ended in disappointment, though they had at least broken through back to the State Tournament and set the stage for later runs.
With heavy graduations on defense and the departure of vaunted junior Derek Forbort to the NTDP, East had some rebuilding to do on the blue line in 2010. Randolph shifted forward Jayce Paulseth back to join the sole returner, Andy Welinski, on the top pair, and entrusted the scoring load to a deep lineup that included a highly touted sophomore class of Nate Repensky, Dom Toninato, Trevor Olson, and Randolph’s son, Jake. He tinkered with his lines as the season went along in search of offense; Jake Randolph settled into a niche on the second line and led the team in scoring. East’s offensive woes lingered through much of the year, and the young defense also had its growing pains. A loss to Elk River involving many shots and few goals left East as the second seed in 7AA.
Still, by the time the playoffs rolled around, there were signs that East would peak at the right time. The team picked up second half ties against Blaine and defending state champ Eden Prairie, and a power play unit that included Toninato, Randolph, and Olson helped get the offense going. The young team flashed its potential in the section final against Elk River, in which they erupted for four goals in the second period and cruised to a 5-1 win.
East opened the State Tournament against fourth-seeded Hill-Murray, a very deep squad that was much more experienced than the Hounds. But early on, it was East that looked the more dangerous team, as they ran to a 2-0 lead behind two goals from the celebrated sophomores. Hill tied the game on two quick strikes in the final minute of the first period, but East got one seconds later from Toninato, and went into the locker room up 3-2. They couldn’t sustain the momentum beyond the break; Hill had two more quick strikes early in the second, and though East had some excruciatingly close chances, they couldn’t knot the score again. Hill put the win on ice when they blew past the East top defensive pair in the third and won, 5-3.
East bounced back the next two days with two-goal wins over Lakeville North and Roseau to lock up the consolation trophy. It was a satisfactory result for a team that had lost so much from the previous year, though the close loss to Hill left a somewhat sour taste, and there was some grumbling about the reliance on young players in key situations. Welinski left for the USHL after the season, and a junior forward transferred to Cloquet, but there was still good reason to expect a bright future for the young Hounds.
The 2011 Hounds added another bumper crop of sophomores to support the solid junior class, and East’s depth had them back in the conversation for a spot in the top five early in the year. Randolph, Toninato, and Olson, now permanently united on the East top line, put up the most impressive numbers by East forwards since the days of Spehar and Locker. Repensky and flashy sophomore Meirs Moore led the defense, while Jeanetta returned for another season in goal. The regular season wasn’t flawless, but the Hounds did enough to lock up the top seed in 7AA and proved they could give just about anyone a close game. A third straight playoff win over Elk River in the semifinals set up perhaps the most exhilarating playoff run in East hockey history.
It began against Grand Rapids in the section final. The 2011 Thunderhawks were a very dangerous team, and offered a rare 7AA opponent that could match East’s depth. Rapids took a 1-0 lead in the second period, and several spectacular saves from goaltender Dom DiGiuseppi kept East off the board, even as the Hounds ratcheted up the pressure in the third. Randolph took a calculated risk and put the game in the hands of his top line, asking them to log loads of ice time as the clock ticked down. With 90 seconds to go, it paid off. Meirs Moore buried the game-tying goal on a rocket from the point, and after a brilliant passing sequence against the stunned Thunderhawks, Olson scored the game-winner twenty-six seconds into overtime.
The Hounds went to State as the third seed, but drew a tough first round opponent in White Bear Lake, which was fresh off an upset of top-ranked Hill-Murray. For a time, it seemed as if the Hounds would simply impose their style and march on to the semis. But White Bear twice rallied to tie the game in the third period, and the Hounds embarked on a second straight overtime adventure. The Bears smelled blood and pressed the initiative, but East weathered the storm and forced the game to a second overtime. There, senior Zac Schendel won the puck along the boards and slipped a sneaky shot five-hole for the victory.
East took on defending state champion Edina in the semifinals. They started slowly but then began to ramp up their forecheck, and Edina star Steven Fogarty and Jake Randolph traded goals in the second period. The teams battled back and forth, playing superbly in all areas; the difference-maker was East sophomore Alex Toscano, who rifled home the overtime game-winner. The Hounds were headed back to the title game for the first time since 2000.
East faced top-seeded Eden Prairie in the final, a team that featured one of the deepest senior classes in Tournament history. Trevor Olson twice gave East the lead, but Eden Prairie answered each time, and once again, the Hounds were off on an overtime odyssey. An injury to senior defenseman Hunter Bergerson sent the Hounds scrambling, but Kyle Campion came off the bench to play the game of his life, and Bergerson’s partner, Andrew Kerr, made up for his absence with a complete highlight reel of hard checks on Eden Prairie star Kyle Rau. The game was so even that it could only end on some sort of fluky play, and that is exactly what happened. In the third overtime, a shot squirted through Jeanetta’s pads, and Kerr fanned on a clearing attempt. Rau dove for the puck and swatted it with his stick, and the puck proceeded to bounce off the post and Kerr’s skate before sliding into the back of the net. The miraculous overtime run was at an end.
Determined to atone for their near-miss, the Hounds returned just about all of their key parts for the 2012 season. The team earned a preseason number one ranking, along with plenty of hype. Randolph and Toninato would both be Mr. Hockey finalists, and Randolph would also nab AP Player of the Year honors; the team was deep and experienced at every position. While the Hounds would miss Jeanetta in goal, junior Dylan Parker looked to be a perfectly suitable replacement.
Injuries sidelined Olson and Repensky for the first month of the year, and it was some time before they were full strength, if they ever truly were. Still, it hardly seemed to matter; the Hounds marched past all opponents and put together gaudy wins over two teams that climbed to the #2 ranking, 6-2 over Minnetonka and 4-1 over Maple Grove. There were a few signs of weakness; East barely survived a road trip to Grand Rapids, and on a day when a bunch of players were out with injury or suspension, Minnetonka shellacked the Hounds 9-3 for their only regular season loss. But East bounced back to sail through the rest of the regular season, and remained the odds-on favorite heading into the playoffs.
After putting Olson on the second line for much of the year to create two great scoring lines, Randolph reunited the famed top group late in the season. The team doubled down defensively late in the year, and while they didn’t blow out the opposition in sections, there was never really any doubt East would come out of 7AA. Perhaps the low-scoring games should have been a warning sign that the Hounds had peaked a little too soon.
The top-seeded Hounds faced Lakeville South in the first round of the State Tournament; while South boasted Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos, they had the inaccurate reputation of being a one-trick pony. The Cougars showed early on they could skate with East, and never quite let the Hounds set up in the offensive zone as they had so many times that year. Still, the Hounds took a 1-0 lead in the first, and weren’t under any serious pressure. The turning point seemed to be an East power play goal that was waved off for a high stick; slowly, the Cougars began to believe, and before long, South looked like the Tournament-tested veteran team, while Mike Randolph was left looking around at his own team wondering, “who are these guys?” He pulled out every trick in his book, floating players high, switching up lines, trying both deep rotations and, in the end, putting the game firmly in the hands of his stars. Nothing worked. South took a 2-1 lead in the third, and Kloos’s empty-netter sent shock waves around the Xcel Center; though East got a goal from Olson in the game’s dying seconds, it wasn’t enough. The Dream Team was left in tears, vanquished by a team Lou Nanne gave “no chance.”
The top four seeds at the Tournament all went down in the quarterfinals, setting up a consolation bracket loaded with talent. After sleepwalking through the first two periods of their game against Edina, Toninato keyed a rally, and East escaped with a 3-2 win. They finished off Eagan the next day to take home the consolation title, though the question of what could have been will long linger.
East began the 2013 season amid talk of turmoil and decline. After lengthy speculation that Jake’s senior year would be Mike Randolph’s last at East, the coach announced he would be back for a 24th season. Still, not everyone was thrilled by this prospect; despite a fine run to four straight State Tournaments, the way those years had ended—two upsets, and two games they could have won but did not—left a bitter taste. A new Duluth East building had opened the previous year, but controversy over its funding left the Duluth school district similarly unsettled. Conner Valesano bolted for the USHL, but a healthy core did return from the 2012 team, including the superb defensive pairing of Meirs Moore and Phil Beaulieu. East carried 13 seniors, though a number of them had little varsity experience, and the scoring load was heavily concentrated on the all-senior top line of Ryan Lundgren, Alex Toscano, and Jack Forbort.
After looking decidedly mediocre for the first month of the year, East erupted for back-to-back 4-1 wins over state powers Edina and Minnetonka just after Christmas. The wins suggested East could still take down giants, but they had yet to prove they could muster that effort consistently, and the team’s first loss to Duluth Denfeld since 1995 underscored those concerns. The loss seemed to be a wake-up call, as East did not lose again in the regular season. They didn’t always win with style, and were often content to grind out scoreless draws 5-on-5 and rely on their lethal power play. But it could be a winning forumla, as was shown by a late-season 3-2 win over Minnetonka on the strength of three Moore power play goals. After following the same script in a 3-0 win over Cloquet in the section semifinals, East again tangled with Grand Rapids for the section title. Though East led throughout the game, the Thunderhawks always hung within striking distance, and a dominant third period out of their star defenseman Jake Bischoff very nearly tipped the balance of power in 7AA. But East held on to win, 4-3, cinching a fifth straight section title in front of the largest crowd to ever attend a high school hockey game in Duluth.
East, seeded second in the Tournament, didn’t exactly set the world on fire in their first round game against Moorhead. But once again, defense carried the day, and a Jack Kolar second period goal gave East all the offense it would need in a 1-0 win. This set up a fourth Tourney meeting with Edina in five years, and the highly skilled Hornets were hungry to avenge their recent struggles against the Hounds. East came out flying in the first and took a 1-0 lead, but the tide slowly began to turn; while they withstood the Edina onslaught for two full periods, the Hornets broke loose in the third for three quick goals. Moore cut the deficit to one with a few minutes to go, but in a game in which the Hounds didn’t get a single power play, there wasn’t enough in the tank to move on. East bounced back in style the next day, cruising past Wayzata in a 7-3 win in the third place game. Though it wasn’t quite the prize they wanted, the trophy topped off a strong season that cleared the air around a program frustrated by the agony of recent playoff defeats. Randolph in particular appeared more relaxed, and the Hounds’ coach will be back for a 25th season next year.
That is, more or less, where East hockey stands right now. The most recent dynasty over 7AA will end someday, and there will be new challenges within and beyond the Hounds’ control, but with a rich tradition and a strong base of youth hockey on the east side of Duluth, they should be a factor for years to come. Thanks to the people who came forward and offered their help as the series went along—it was gratifying to see such an active interest. Just because the blog posts are done doesn’t mean the project is over, though; I’d love to continue to expand on what I have. If you more information that covers some of the gaps or adds color to something I covered only briefly, by all means, send it along, and I can do a follow-up post. And if you’re really ambitious, there’s a lot of archive-digging that can still be done to fill in the gaps in the earlier years. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to get some of my data up online in a presentable format. Also, as promised, there will be a post in the not-so-distant future that will grapple with the notion that East hockey (and high school sports programs in general) can grow to be “too big,” or lose sight of what high school is really about.
Thanks for following, and I gladly welcome any feedback, criticism, or different interpretations—as much as I may try to be objective, there are always more sides to any story.
Quotes come from my own post-game press conference notes.