State Tournament Look Back: 2012

As usual, I’ll wrap up my annual hockey coverage with a look back to the Tourney from a decade ago, complete with a snapshot on the careers of participants after high school, with breakdowns on both Division-I players and those who played after high school in any venue.

The 2012 Tourney might just be the most memorable one I’ve ever seen. Upset Thursday was one of the most dramatic days of quarterfinals ever, St. Thomas Academy cemented its status as the foremost power in Class A, and Grant Besse’s heroics put an exclamation point on a storybook run for Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the aftermath of Jack Jablonski’s paralyzing midseason injury. It was a Tourney that padded the event’s mystique, and the amount of front-end talent on display that weekend was particularly memorable.

Class AA

The 2012 Tourney is most memorable for the defeat of all four seeded teams in the quarterfinals. In some respects, it wasn’t a total shock: this was a loaded Tourney field. All eight entrants were ranked in the top 11 in the state heading into sections, and seven of the eight were the top seed in their respective sections, the lone exception being a powerful Benilde-St. Margaret’s team that came out of a loaded section 6AA and decisively knocked off second-ranked Minnetonka to make the Tourney.

Against that backdrop, the first of the upsets is one that, in retrospect, seems less shocking than it was at the time. Maple Grove had been a force all season and obliterated Blaine 15-1 in the 5AA final, but their talent level was not otherworldly. Wily Hill-Murray, in reload mode after a senior-heavy team fell short the previous season, had more than enough skill to match them. And sure enough, after conceding an early goal, the Pioneers went to work and scored five times in a row, with Zach LaValle having a hand in four of the tallies. The Pios finished off Maple Grove 5-2 and advanced to the semis.

If the first upset was an impressive showing by an underrated team, the second one was a good, old-fashioned theft of a game by a star goaltender. Moorhead senior Michael Bitzer would win the Frank Brimsek Award in 2012, and his quarterfinal performance helped cement his reputation as one of the greatest high school goal tenders of his era. Powerful, grinding Eagan was title favorite, but they lacked the finishing touch to get by Bitzer, and in short order they too were on their way to Mariucci. The loss set back what was, on paper, Eagan’s best team ever.

Matching a new State entrant with a skilled blueblood often ends in an upset; great goalie performances happen. But the upset in the third quarterfinal looks just as jarring ten years later. Duluth East had been ranked number one most of the season, its core almost entirely intact from the AA runner-up edition from the season before. The Hounds’ sole regular season blemish was an ugly Hockey Day loss to Minnetonka, and while there were some warning signs down the stretch that they were perhaps doubling down too much on an elite top line instead of relying on the whole team approach that won them the Schwan Cup Gold, they were the clear top seed in the field. Their opponent, Lakeville South, boasted eventual Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos but otherwise attracted little attention despite a top-10 caliber season. The Cougars’ speed gave the Hounds fits, and the top-ranked team had no answers as the pressure mounted. Down went arguably the best East team of the new millennium, and South, improbably, advanced to the semifinals.

The final game of the day would be hard-pressed to top the three before, but this matchup, which looked good on paper, lived up to its billing as well. For long stretches it looked as if a very young, reloading Edina team would pull it out and suddenly become the favorite for an unexpected title. But Benilde had the air of a team of destiny, and despite the Hornets’ 19-6 shot edge in the final frame, Christian Horn’s goal in the final minute of regulation sealed a Red Knight win.

Moorhead failed to generate much offense in the semifinal with Hill-Murray, but an early Cody Rahman goal seemed, for a spell, like it might be all Bitzer needed. He held up under the Pioneer attack into the third, but Conrad Sampair had other ideas, scoring first to tie the game, and then to win it just 1:51 into overtime. Meanwhile, in the second semifinal, Lakeville South’s luck ran out: Benilde, now the prohibitive favorites, put up five goals in the first period and proceeded with a 10-1 obliteration. South would slip out with third place honors the next night, while Duluth East marched through the consolation bracket.

Saturday night, meanwhile, belonged to one Grant Besse. He scored his first goal just over eight minutes in, and a second less than two later. Guentzel, Hill’s star, at first looked like he might be able to carry his Pioneers through a blow-for-blow fight, but the Hill power play, with Guentzel alone atop an umbrella, may well have been his team’s undoing. Defensively, the Pios had no answer for Besse’s speed the other direction: the first shorty gave him his natural hat trick late in the second, and after Hill clawed a goal back, he promptly got a second. The exclamation point came with just under three minutes left, when Besse lasered home his third shorthanded goal and fifth total goal of the game. The finish was a coronation for Besse, whose performance in the modern State Tournament has few modern era rivals not named Dave Spehar. The crown was Benilde’s, the storybook season marred only by a strange kerfuffle over Jablonsky’s allowance on the ice for the celebration.

Class A

In Class A, 2012 brought the second of three championship showdowns between Hermantown and St. Thomas Academy. This time around, the undefeated Hawks earned the top seed, while St. Thomas slotted in second, Breck third, and Thief River Falls fourth. None of the lower seeds really had a chance. Little Falls and Duluth Marshall, both back in the Tourney after brief absences, did not have the talent of their entertaining counterparts from a few seasons earlier, and lost by twin 7-0 scores to St. Thomas and Breck, respectively. In the evening quarterfinal session, Hermantown dispatched of Rochester Lourdes, while Thief River Falls marched past new Ulm.

Things got better in the semis. St. Thomas and Breck, winners of the past four Class A tournaments, went back and forth in a nervy affair. David Zevnik made Peter Krieger’s second period goal stand up, and the Cadets advanced to the final by a 1-0 score. In the second game, Hermantown staked itself to an early lead and similarly seemed to be holding on in a tight one before the game erupted four minutes into the third. Two quick goals put Thief River on top, but Hermantown answered right back just a minute after the Prowlers’ second score, and Jared Thomas hit paydirt with 5:15 left to lift the Hawks to a third consecutive state title game.

This one did not go well for Hermantown. After giving the Cadets all they could handle the previous season, the undefeated Hawks got pummeled this time around. St. Thomas scored twice in the first and three times in the first ten minutes of the second, and the rest was academic. It wound up as a 5-1 final, and the Cadets claimed their second championship in a row and their fourth in Class A. The chorus of cries for their graduation to Class AA grew louder, most notably in some biting remarks from Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, but the Cadets’ status was clear: far and away the best team in Class A in 2012. In retrospect, the talent gap appears glaring, and the Cadets may have been the best team in either class.

That dominance would continue as the state looked ahead to the following season: in Class A, the two finalists were on a collision course for a third straight year. The AA powers’ positions weren’t getting any weaker, either, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Duluth East would all return in search of redemption in 2013. But not everything was preordained: the Benilde dynasty this Tourney seemed to herald did not come to pass, as the senior-loaded Red Knights would lose in sections the following season, and (as of this writing) have not been back to State since. Lakeville South’s quarterfinal win also heralded the rise of the Lakeville schools, long State Tourney doormats, as serious contenders over the next decade, while the full arrival of Maple Grove would take a bit longer. But in 2012, the show belonged to Besse, to Jablonski, to the Red Knights, and to the St. Thomas machine.

State Tournament Look Back: 2011

To continue my series of 10-year reviews of past State Tournaments, we revisit 2011 this season. It was a juicy one: a senior-dominated Eden Prairie team of destiny, a powerful defending state champion in Edina, an up-and-coming Duluth East team, and a few genuine surprises such as White Bear Lake. There were four championship bracket overtime games across both classes, plus two more frenetic, high-scoring affairs on the Class A side. The two finals were among the best in either class, with Kyle Rau’s iconic dive coming to be one of the most memorable moments in Tourney history.

Class AA

2011 featured a particularly competitive set of section tournaments. No one team dominated the regular season from start to finish, but Wayzata and Eden Prairie, guided by the state’s top two seniors (Tony Cameranesi and Kyle Rau) traded blows in 6AA over the course of the year. Eden Prairie, the preseason #1, got the last laugh when Rau scored in the second overtime in the section final. By the stretch run Hill-Murray had emerged as the consensus top-ranked team, but in one of the games of the decade, a scrappy White Bear Lake team came together at the right time, dodged an open net bullet in overtime, and went back to State courtesy of Mac Jansen. Defending champion Edina had to fight off an inspired Burnsville team to secure the 2AA title. A Blaine team reloading from a senior-heavy group toppled a top five Maple Grove team for a sixth trip to State in a row, while Grand Rapids fielded one of its deepest teams of the two-class era and saw a 1-0 lead with 1:30 left slip away into an overtime loss to Duluth East. And in another battle of two top ten-ish teams, Eagan held off defending 3AA champion Apple Valley 1-0 to earn a second ever trip to State.

The AA Tourney opened with the second-seeded defending champion Hornets, the star junior class that had carried them the year before now back as seniors, against Blaine. The Bengals weren’t the favorite they were some other seasons in that era, but after one period they were up 2-1, courtesy power play and shorthanded goals by two of the Brodzinski brothers, Michael and Jonny. Edina responded early in the second, though, with goals from Jake Sampson and Andy Jordahl, and generally controlled play from there. The Hornets were back in the semifinals, though not quite in convincing fashion.

Duluth East, which added a strong sophomore class to the now-juniors who had carried them to a fifth place finish the season before, drew the third seed and a meeting with surging White Bear Lake. The Hounds had the edge in play for much of the game, but for every punch, there was a counterpunch, and the Bears took the initiative in the third, very nearly securing that elusive first-round victory. Things settled down in overtime, however, and Zac Schendel slipped in the game-winner shortly into the second overtime. That five-frame affair was just one in a series of marathons for both teams: White Bear had played overtime in its section semifinal, both had played it in their finals, and both would play it again the next two days of the Tourney.

If the afternoon was entertaining, the night billing was something of a snoozefest. Lakeville North, fresh off an upset of Justin Kloos-led Lakeville South in the 1AA playoffs, was never really in the game with top-seeded Eden Prairie. In the nightcap, Moorhead stuck around with fourth-seeded Eagan, largely through the efforts of junior goaltender Michael Bitzer, who made 30 saves in a losing effort. While rarely seriously tested, the Wildcats took an early 1-0 lead and held it until just under five minutes left, when a second tally followed by two empty-netters led to a 4-0 final margin.

Friday night opened with a battle between Duluth East and Edina, the first of four semifinal clashes between the two powerhouses in an eight-year span. If not for what happened the next night, it would have been a true Tournament classic: two loaded teams playing at an elite level, probing back and forth in a tight affair. They traded goals early then settled in to an even battle into overtime, where an Alex Toscano shot caught a defenseman’s stick and soared behind Connor Girard three minutes and 54 second into the bonus frame. East headed to its first title game in 11 years, while a beleaguered Edina lost to Eagan in the third-place game.

The second semifinal, on the other hand, was not much of a contest. Eden Prairie went up 2-0 in the first through Luc Gerdes and Nic Seeler, and the Kyle Rau show followed that, as the Eagles ran the margin to 4-0 after two. The X emptied out as they finished off a 5-1 victory, and their deep senior class had a chance go out with a win for their Mr. Hockey winner, just as their team had done two years prior for Nick Leddy when many of these core players were sophomores.

The 2011 final was one of the greatest title games ever played. The Eagles and Hounds were evenly matched, trading chances back and forth, with Trevor Olson scoring twice for East and the Rath brothers, Mark and David, accounting for both Eagle tallies East defenseman Andrew Kerr put together a highlight reel of hits on Rau. Late in the 3rd, an injury to East defenseman Hunter Bergerson forced the Hounds to press a 4th-line forward, Kyle Campion, into regular shifts on defense. The game marched on through two overtimes and into a third, the two teams’ legs leaded and dragging. A dead-even game broke the only way it could: Rau dove and swatted at a loose puck, which trickled through goaltender JoJo Jeanetta’s legs, ricocheted off the pipe, off Kerr’s skate, and into the net.

Eden Prairie’s title was its second in three years, and the second for one of the most accomplished senior classes in recent high school hockey. It cemented Rau’s place in Minnesota lore and put the Eagles among the state’s elite, a place they would remain for the next decade. It was also a triumph for a group of seniors, many of whom could have played elsewhere during their senior seasons, but chose to come back and live out a dream together. They fulfilled that promise. East, meanwhile, would return almost entirely intact the next year in hopes of revenge; Eagan would return as well, while Edina would head into a quick reload to set the stage for future success.

Class A

In Class A, a relatively deep field emerged, albeit one with a clear pecking order. After two years of upsets at the hands of Mahtomedi, St. Thomas Academy returned to State, loaded as the top seed an in pursuit of a title. Hermantown, after a runner-up finish in 2010, was settling into a rhythm of producing consistent contenders for the crown. Two-time defending champion Breck made the dance as well, though they were somewhat diminished from the titlists of the previous two years. In section 8A, Thief River Falls pulled a mild upset of Warroad to head back to State, while in 6A, Alexandria went as a 5-seed in its section.

2011 turned in one of the most entertaining days of Class A quarterfinals in memory. While St. Thomas pasted New Ulm 13-2 and the Hermantown-Alexandria game is best remembered for a pregame skate to the line, the first day delivered two crowd-pleasing upsets for the first time in the seeded era. First, Hibbing, riding an emerging sophomore star in Adam Johnson, took down third-seeded Rochester Lourdes 4-0, an upset that relied on Johnson’s star power and a strong performance from Nathan Tromp in goal. And then, in the nightcap, Thief River Falls took down Breck 7-5 in a real crowd-pleaser of a game, with Breck building a 4-2 lead after two periods before the Prowlers erupted for four in a row. A late shorthanded goal from Tomas Lindstrom gave Breck some life, but an empty-netter sealed the Prowlers’ first championship bracket win since their 1965 state title.

The first semifinal had a similar flavor. Hermantown trotted out to a 4-1 lead over Hibbing . Adam Johnson then went off, however, scoring a natural hat trick in a span of three minutes over the late second and early third periods. The Hawks had the last laugh, though, as Andrew Mattson scored with just over a minute remaining, and an empty-netter sealed a 6-4 Hermantown win. St. Thomas, meanwhile, steamrolled Thief River Falls 5-0 in the second semi, though the Prowlers would rebound to win the third place game 3-0 the following day.

The 2011 Class A final was the first of three consecutive meetings between the Cadets and Hawks. On paper, it was a mismatch: Hermantown was a little on the young side, while St. Thomas was good everywhere in the lineup. But in the early going, it was all Hawks, as they wee up 3-0 7:05 into the game, largely through the efforts of Jared Thomas. St. Thomas turned up the pressure in a 19-shot second period; they pulled it to 3-2 before giving up another, then scored again with two minutes left in the period to head to the third down 4-3. Andrew Commers tied the game in the third, and the seesawing affair headed to overtime. There, Taylor Fleming proved the Cadets’ hero and gave the school its third Class A championship.

The game was only a preview of fun to come. Hermantown and St. Thomas would collide twice more in the final in the coming years, while Breck, while still a contender, would settle into a third-fiddle status in the following years. But 2011, in very dramatic fashion, belonged to Eden Prairie and St. Thomas Academy.