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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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Rising to the Occasion

2 Mar

The drama never fails. For the fifth time in six years, the 7AA final went to overtime. Amsoil Arena rose to a fevered pitch, with girls screaming on every rush, and the stage was set for another kid to write himself into Minnesota high school hockey lore. This time, the hero was one of the more likely ones: Ryder Donovan, who pumped home a no-doubt game-winner in the first minute of overtime. It was the Hounds’ second consecutive title, their ninth in the past 11 years, the 18th under Mike Randolph, and 24th in the history of the program. The legacy writes itself, and Donovan, the senior captain headed to his third Tournament in five years, is a fitting bearer of the torch.

The regular season had its share of tumult. East beat one State Tournament entrant and tied two more, but also lost to teams like Prior Lake and Champlin Park. When not disrupted by bad weather, East pulled things together toward the end and entered the playoffs on a strong note. But questions lingered, and to advance to State, they had to get past two quality opponents. While Cloquet had a similarly frustrating regular season, the Lumberjacks had enough talent to make things interesting, plus a rivalry factor; ten minutes into the game, it looked like they would give the Hounds everything they could handle. And Andover, a top four team all season long, deserved favorite status in 7AA. They’d beaten the Hounds in the regular season, and were deep and dangerous at every position. But neither team could finish it, and 7AA’s goliath claimed another title.

The star of the section run was Ricky Lyle, who accounted for eight of East’s 16 playoff goals, and assisted on five more. The tenacious forward has a flair for the dramatic, and coupled his sniping with a barrage of nasty hits. His scoring-opening against both Cloquet and Andover set the tone, and showed the Hounds would go blow-for-blow with their opponents; his second one against the Huskies swung the momentum in East’s favor. He drew the penalty that set up Donovan’s game-winner, and slipped his teammate a perfect pass to seal a section title. Over four seasons at East, Lyle has found ways to always put himself in the middle of the action, and is playing his way toward a brighter hockey future.

Donovan, too, rose to the occasion. As with his team, his season had its ups and downs, but his prodigious talent shined most in the semis against Cloquet, where he was a one-man wrecking crew on the penalty kill. He set up Lyle on a first shorthanded rush and then finished one of his own thirty seconds later, a dagger that took all the life out of the Lumberjacks. In the section final, battling an illness, he made his presence felt up and down the ice, double-shifting to keep his calming presence out there. Whatever his goal total may be, his skating ability and hands put him in a truly elite class, and in the biggest moment of his season, he didn’t miss.

In a season where their rivals had every chance to derail the defending section champs, the Hounds separated themselves with senior leadership. With 12 seniors on the playoff roster, had the physical maturity to wear down opponents, and they’d been down this road before. Plenty of teams would have folded after giving up a game-tying power play goal midway through the third period, but it never felt like a serious shift in momentum. East went back to work: their top players in particular refused to cave. Not once were they caught up in the moment, while Andover coach Mark Manney said many of his players were.

Much of the credit for East’s success should go to the rebuilt defense. Ever the backbone of a Randolph-coached team, the Hounds came into this season with little experience on the blue line. F.H. Paine was the star of the unit, a two-way playmaker whose open-ice hits might be the nastiest in the state. But Carson Cochran added a veteran presence, E.J. Hietala showed tremendous growth over the course of the season, and Jayson Hagen returned from injury around midseason and was a rock in his own end. If that group could break out reliably, I thought, this group could beat Andover, and they did so just often enough.

‘Just enough’ was the theme of the night. While the Hounds have encountered a few Grand Rapids and Elk River teams over the past decade that had more top-end talent, this Andover team was the first opponent over that time frame that could legitimately outskate an East team, top to bottom. Their forward corps was three lines deep, Ben Fritsinger was one of the state’s very best goalies, and the puck control of the defense, led by junior Wyatt Kaiser, was elite. But East’s physical play did enough to disrupt them, and by driving traffic to the net, they made Fritsinger look mortal. Thursday’s final was only the second game all season in which he gave up more than two goals. Brody Rabold, meanwhile, did just enough to win, and the rest of the Hounds’ supporting cast chipped in here and there as well, from Jack Fitzgerald’s go-ahead goal to Brendan Baker’s strong night all over the ice.

Fortune did not frown upon the Hounds, either. Lyle’s second goal of the night, which tied the game at two, took a convenient bounce off his leg. The referees made their presence felt throughout the game, first by calling nothing in the early going to enable a physical war, and then by suddenly inserting themselves in the middle of the third period. This broke both ways, and each team, when gifted a power play opportunity, finished immediately. Andover’s came at an opportune time to tie the game in the third after East had appeared to enter lockdown mode, and East’s came in overtime. The Hounds never relinquished the puck, and Donovan finished just eight seconds in to the man advantage.

East heads to State as the 5-seed, and will open in the late game against St. Thomas Academy, a rematch of the 2015 thriller in which the Hounds came back from 3-0 and 5-2 deficits to win in overtime. Their side of the bracket, which also features Moorhead and top-ranked Edina, is brutal, but just about everything a fan of high school hockey could ask for in terms of juicy matchups in the quarterfinals and semifinal. The Hounds won’t be a favorite on paper, but they probably will be in the arena, and they should make this week a memorable one, in one way or another. St. Paul, here we come.

Reload Mode Hounds

12 Dec

A few games into the high school hockey season the hype phase begins to fade and reality sets in: we begin to learn what teams actually have, and how far they might go. The preseason puzzle on the east side of Duluth tried to figure how the Greyhounds would reload in the absence of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, Ian Mageau, and a number of other members of a deep senior class. Fresh off a return to their perch atop 7AA, a victory over Edina in a memorable clash of goliaths, and the bitter taste of a state championship game loss to Minnetonka, northeast Minnesota’s hockey bluebloods are looking to fill those gaps and take care of some unfinished business.

The 2018-2019 Hounds are off to a solid, if not exactly flashy, start. This is in part to due to their opponents—White Bear Lake and Wayzata both look tough in the early going, to say nothing of a front-line Andover team—and in part due to Mike Randolph’s coaching system, which always looks for consistent control instead of gaudy scorelines, especially as the team tests combinations and works its systems in the early going. Since a near-disaster in the first three minutes of the season against White Bear they’ve been stout defensively, and stayed that way throughout a back-and-forth affair with now-second-ranked Andover, which ended in an overtime loss in front of a packed house at the Andover Community Center on Saturday.

Luke Kron’s game-winner was a key moment for the Huskies, who had never beaten East before in their history. Their goaltender, Ben Fritsinger, is the real deal, while the top line of Kron, Charlie Schoen, and Nick Dainty had its moments of dominance. They are a deep group on a mission for their first Tourney berth. But from an East perspective, the loss is hardly cause for concern. It was an overtime loss in December; their lineup is less settled than the highly experienced Huskies, and as the game built and the bench shortened, it was the Hounds who carried more of the play. If the top line can finish its chances and the defensemen can rein in floaters who sneak in behind them, they’ll be tough to beat. History tells us the Hounds will improve as the season goes along; will they stay true to form, and how does Andover counter?

Randolph’s typical tinkering will likely continue into January, but the early returns do little to seed any doubt that the Hounds are right back among the state’s best despite their graduation losses. Deep programs often do better than observers might expect after graduating a very successful senior class, in large part due to the quality of many players who were buried on the depth chart the season before. The early contributions of a junior like Charlie Erickson, who would’ve seen a regular shift on any lesser team a season ago, or of a senior such as the giant Jonathan Jones, are an immediate testament to that maxim. The Hounds are playing four lines with regularity, and cycling through a host of defensemen as they look for the group that will get ice time in February and perhaps beyond. With no shortage of options, they are right among the state’s top teams in a season where few to no AA teams look like the East, Edina, and Minnetonka super teams of a season ago.

Mike Randolph has played goaltender roulette and started three different tenders over the first four games. Back around the start of the decade, Randolph’s handling of his goalies was a subject of some criticism, and not without some justification. The goalies, often left on an island watching action at the other end of the ice for long stretches, were often called upon to make only a few saves on breakaways, and their performance in those moments—and mental makeup as they tried to withstand them—could lead to swift hooks and cratering confidence. In recent years, however, Randolph seems to have gotten the goalie game right.Seniors like Gunnar Howg, Kirk Meierhoff, and Parker Kleive weren’t guaranteed anything, but won their respective jobs in open competition and were the no-doubt starters down the stretch and through strong playoff runs. Whether the wheel finally stops on veteran Lukan Hanson, upstart Konrad Kausch, or the unheralded Brody Rabold, someone will need to seize the opportunity.

Aside from a goaltender, the players who will be most essential to East’s rise over the course of the season will be its remaining front-line stars. The team boasts a top-notch defensive pair of Carson Cochran and Frederick Hunter Paine, as tenacious a net-front presence as the state can offer in Ricky Lyle, and of course Ryder Donovan, who has a chance to join the pantheon of East all-time greats. Donovan is projected to go in the first three rounds of the NHL draft, which would be the highest position of any Hound who played his senior year at East since Rusty Fitzgerald in 1991. (A very achievable 50-point season would put him in the top five Hounds since we have statistics; a difficult but not impossible 75 would get him into third, behind the possibly untouchable pair of Chris Locker and Dave Spehar.) The bevy of quality players and the steadiness of the system will ensure that East continues to look like one of the deepest teams in the state. But to truly separate themselves, the Hounds need a huge season out of Donovan, and his breakaways and laps skated around opponents need to turn into points. Lyle and Brendan Baker will be his wingmen, and with Jack Fitzgerald’s expected return from injury against Cloquet, the lower lines should fall into place.

This team’s potential reminds me of past Hounds editions such as 2012-2013 or perhaps even 1997-1998: groups that had graduated more top-end talent the season before, but still had a couple of major stars, and still had the customary program depth to make a deep run into March. Solid team defense, quality special teams, and steady improvement can turn dreams into reality. If the top line scores the way it can, the second line, anchored by Logan Anderson, should be productive as well. A couple of inexperienced defensemen will need to take steps forward; after a few scary opening minutes against White Bear Lake, the early returns on the rebuilt blue line corps, particularly its top four, are encouraging. (Jayson Hagen waits in the wings as a reinforcement when healthy, too.)

Before March, however, is Cloquet: on Thursday, East renews its longtime rivalry with the Lumberjacks, and rarely has this never-predictable rivalry been more up in the air. Cloquet opened the season hyped as a third highly-ranked 7AA squad beside East and Andover, but the early returns have been an utter disappointment. The Jacks are 1-5, and while most of the losses have been fairly close games with good teams, they have not looked in sync in any facet of their game. East went winless in the teams’ two meetings a season ago, and this rivalry has a way of flattening any talent gaps and erasing any momentum. It will be an instructive game for how both teams handle a chaotic, playoff-like atmosphere, and could invite the emergence of some unsung heroes. As the tinkering continues, the real tests begin to mount, and we’ll learn more about where these Hounds truly stand.

The Power and the Glory: Duluth East 2017-2018 in Review

13 Mar

Those of us who follow Duluth East hockey don’t really know the meaning of an unmemorable season. The storylines always seem to fall into place, and win or lose, the Greyhounds find some way to entertain us. But the 2017-2018 team, runners up in the state of Minnesota, somehow found a way to make themselves to stand out above the rest. It was a remarkable year.

While these Hounds had a few more hiccups against mid-tier teams than the other top teams in the state, they still finished with the second-best regular season since the last championship in 1998, and they rolled into the playoffs with more jump than that one team that was better than them on paper, the 2012 group that lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. They flashed their formidable talent in solid wins over the likes of Wayzata, Andover, Centennial, Elk River, and top-ranked Minnetonka, and the only concerning wobbles came against local rivals like Cloquet and Duluth Marshall. After they slaughtered the Hilltoppers in the section semis and found a way to dig deep and overcome scrappy Andover in the section final, they had all the makings of a team on a championship run.

The Hounds faced a spirited test from the Knights of St. Michael-Albertville in the Tourney quarterfinals, but a sudden detonation of WMD (plus some Logan Anderson for good measure) in the second period put away the Knights. Garrett Worth pulled his best Dave Spehar with a hat trick, and at 5-0 the Hounds had their largest Tourney margin of victory since the days of said Mr. Spehar. Parker Kleive logged a shutout in net to prove East goaltending would be no weakness in this Tourney, and Mike Randolph was able to rotate in some depth players to keep his most dangerous weapons in tune for Friday night.

For the fourth time in eight years, the first game on Friday night had the Hounds matched with Edina, a titanic clash between the two best programs of the two-class era. This war has come to define Tourney semifinals, and this Edina squad, which blasted so many quality opponents into running time, looked every bit the most lethal one in the field in its romp to the semifinals. It all ended there. A Worth snipe, an Ian Mageau power move, a Randolph lockdown defense, a Carson Cochran diving save, and a bit of luck on a fluttering puck off the stick of Frederick Hunter Paine proved the formula for a Greyhound victory. Worth fired one last rocket into the open net to punctuate the night: one of the most skilled Hornet squads in history was history, vanquished yet again by their great nemesis of the North.

The Hounds got off to a slow start and an early deficit against Minnetonka in the state championship game, but with a few in-game adjustments they still found a way to generate their share of ever-so-close chances. The second line in particular was flying, with Austin Jouppi and Ricky Lyle providing the offense for the night. WMD, however, was snakebitten, and the tight defensive corps took a beating as the clock ticked down on their third straight game. None of those close chances went in, and with a little puck luck of their own, the smooth-skating Skippers denied the Hounds the crown.

I’ve been through a lot of East year-end losses now, but save for the unique pain that comes from the end of one’s own senior year, this one hurts the most of all of them. Even if it didn’t have the heartbreak factor of a Kyle Rau triple-overtime dive or the lingering what-ifs of losing to a less skilled opponent in 2009 or 2012, it hurts because this was such an easy team to like, and more than any of them seemed to have both the talent and the heart to win it. The team just felt like a loose, goofy group that knew its mission. It said something Mike Randolph’s first hug after a big win always seemed to be for Worth, a kid who had to aggravate him at times, but remained lovable in spite of it, and certainly showed his share of growth over his years as a Hound. (Garrett listed Randolph as his greatest fear in the team program.) The buy-in was complete, and the right blends of skill and balance, of experience and confidence, of coaching and freedom, were all there.

This team wrote its way into the East record books. Worth’s 47 goals were the most by a Hound not named Spehar, while Ryder Donovan’s 48 assists were the most by any Hound not named Chris Locker. The top line of Worth, Ian Mageau, and Donovan will go down as one of the team’s best, and certainly the one with the best nickname. Ricky Lyle’s gritty second line added the power and a strong dose of offense, the third line kept grinding away, and the four-man defensive corps grew into one that outplayed Edina’s bevy of D-I blue line talent. By the end, there wasn’t a weakness to be found.

And so we say farewell to one of the more special classes of seniors to wear the red and grey. This group lived up to its considerable hype, and its longest tenured members both began and ended their East careers with second place finishes and upsets over Edina. One last roll call: Parker Kleive, who came from somewhere completely off my radar to win the goaltending job this season, and was rock-solid when the pressure was on. Porter Haney and Hunter Hren, who provided valuable depth, and Tommy Higgins, with his state record save percentage. Will Fisher, a captain and a rock in the four-man defensive corps, and Nick Lanigan, the scrappy third liner who was always rocketing around the ice and getting his nose right in the thick of things. Austin Jouppi, who blossomed into a superb power forward and put it all on the line on the state championship game. Ian Mageau, a top line force who set up the dagger to finish Edina in 2015, scored the go-ahead goal this time around, and quietly slid his way up the East all-time scorer ranks. Luke LaMaster, named the top senior defenseman in Minnesota for his two-way play. And the sniper, Garrett Worth, whose goal barrage earned a place in the annals of East history. As always, we wish them well, both in hockey and in life, and hope they learned a bit about the latter while living it up as the former as a Greyhound.

I usually keep some distance from East players. I don’t want to come off as some weird old fanboy, and sometimes I’m probably better off not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. This is about them, not me. But this year, I couldn’t help but throw out some hugs to players as they emerged from the locker room after it was all over. They’d invested everything they had in a game, and I’d invested a healthy amount of the past few months watching their exploits. The boys of winter didn’t disappoint: there is no better, more convenient entertainment than this, and when it’s part of a community that one can call one’s own, all one can do is offer up some appreciation. I’ll miss this group, and after a healthy rest, we can start the countdown to next November.

A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.