The Ryder of a Lifetime: Duluth East 2018-2019 in Review

14 Mar

After the end of the 2018 state championship game, I joined the parents and fans in waiting for the Duluth East players to emerge from the bowels of the Xcel Center. I commiserated with the other loyalists and gave a few players some hugs. But a brief moment with Ryder Donovan, the then-junior forward, became my iconic memory of that Tourney. He told me in no uncertain terms that he had unfinished business, and promised he would do what he could to bring the Hounds back.

It wasn’t always clear that East would finish that business. The team ran out to a strong start, but things began to unravel with a loss to Champlin Park that kicked off a spotty 4-5-2 run in the middle of the season. The offense went cold for long stretches, and the team pressed when down. Mike Randolph continued his endless search for answers to life’s persistent line-building questions and cycled through countless options in search of a winning combination. More so than at any point in recent memory, this East team teetered on the edge: would they all pull together and make one more run, or would they come apart at the seams? But by the end of the season things seemed to fall back into line, and by the grace of a reinforced defense, a Ricky Lyle barrage, and Donovan’s delivery on his promise, they made their way back to St. Paul. The section final upset of Andover was a triumph of steady determination and unflinching belief, even as events over the course of the year gave reason for doubt.

A state championship was always going to be a reach for this group. These Hounds did not have the across-the-board front-end skill that several of the other top-end teams did. Their great demon over the course of the season, an inability to finish the chances they had, reared its head in the state quarterfinals. The Hounds carried play and out-chanced St. Thomas Academy over the course of the game, but could only slip one goal past Muzzy Donohue in net, and several golden chances went by the wayside. The gameplan was there, but the execution was not. The question will linger as to what this team could have done if given a crack at Edina on Friday night, but it wasn’t to be.

The Hounds defended their pride in the consolation bracket at Mariucci, where they avenged an ugly January loss to Moorhead and rolled past Lakeville South to add another trophy to the case. Showings at Mariucci say something about the mindset of a team after a dream comes to an end, and these Hounds found ways to produce. Donovan and his fellow seniors went out with some style, and some of the underclassmen began to pick up the scoring load and gave a glimpse of the future. The last few games were a fitting sendoff for a group that was deep, skilled, and just plain fun.

We now bid farewell to a deep senior class that also had an excellent cast of characters. Carson Cochran provided steady defense and the greatest save of East’s 2018 semifinal win over Edina, while E.J. Hietala and Jayson Hagen blossomed into quality defensemen as seniors. Brody Rabold and Lukan Hanson were a steady tandem in goal, and it was a shame there was room for only one of them in the lineup. David Holliday provided valuable depth, while Jonathan Jones combined his giant frame with some subtle skill, and should get a shot at higher-level hockey somewhere. Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker were steady producers over long varsity careers. Ricky Lyle combined his tenacious hits with a flair for the dramatic, and put the team on his back in sections. Frederick Hunter Paine, or whatever name he goes by these days, shared Lyle’s physical edge and was the two-way star on the blue line.

Ryder Donovan’s graduation, meanwhile, feels like the end of an era for Duluth East hockey. He was a central player in so many moments over his five years on the roster, a run that included three Tourney berths and two second place finishes. His senior year came freighted with immense pressure and a change in college plans, yet the future NHL draft pick made it clear he left with no regrets. The narrow losses leave questions of what might have been, but those wistful what-ifs of our adolescent lives define high school for all but the most charmed among us. The true test comes in developing the ability to learn from that unavoidable adversity, and in building a community of people that one can look back on fondly, no matter how far one may wander. On that count, Ryder was far ahead of his years from the start, and understood exactly what he was a part of. He is an example to the East program for years to come.

We wish Ryder and his teammates the best in hockey and in life, and thank them for their time in this brotherhood of Greyhound hockey. From early morning bag skates to section championship celebrations, they built memories that will last a lifetime, and those who will be back next season now get some well-earned time off before the excitement starts to build again. I’ll sign off in my role as the scribe for this program until any offseason intrigue or preseason previews bring me back. The adventure never ends.

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