Hermantown is among the highest scoring teams in the state thanks to returning veterans such as Chris Benson. Photo by Adam Crane
St. Cloud Cathedral's Danny Johnston (33) leads the Crusaders in scoring. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen
Is this the year?
The question around northeastern Minnesota late this winter has been whether Hermantown will break through with its first state title since 2007. The Hawks (25-0-0) just capped an unbeaten regular season and are the prohibitive favorites to get back to the X from Section 5A.
Coach Bruce Plante has his best team since that 2007 state title crew, although in each of the last two years the Hawks nearly won other championship.
Hermantown has lost in the Class 1A state title game two years in a row, both in heart-breaking fashion. Two years ago, Breck sneaked past the Hawks with a late goal that deflected off a shin pad. Last year the Hawks surged ahead of St. Thomas Academy 4-0 in the first period, only to see the lead evaporate in an overtime loss.
While several key veterans were lost off that squad, Hermantown hasn't missed a beat.
Senior forward Jared Thomas (24-44-68), a Mr. Hockey finalist and Minnesota-Duluth recruit, anchors the forward lines with a terrific, well-rounded game. Andrew Mattson (13-23-36) and Chris Benson (18-16-34) add scoring punch for the Hawks, who also get plenty of support from one of the top defensive corps in the entire state regardless of class. Seniors Jared Kolquist (9-23-32), Brian LeBlanc (15-16-31) and Owen Stauber (1-9-10) and junior Jake Zeleznikar (7-14-21) are not only great in their own zone, they also aren't afraid to jump into the offensive zone on a rush.
One thing Plante also seems to do well -- other than win consistently -- is to find goaltending from untested sources. For the third straight year, the Hawks plucked a goalie from anonymity into a starring role on the team. This year, it's senior Matt Mensinger (19-0-0, 1.47, .934).
Bryan Jungles (12) of Rogers. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen
If it sounds like Hermantown is unbeatable, well, they have been. But that doesn't mean they will continue to be so. A couple of Section 5A powers have given the Hawks a run this year, No. 2 Rogers (18-6-1) and No. 3 St. Cloud Cathedral (19-5-0).
Rogers lost just 2-1 to Hermantown back on Dec. 17 when the Hawks rallied with a pair of third-period goals. The Royals are a veteran team that has pointed toward this season with an eye on the school's first state tournament berth. Zach Hnath (22-24-46) leads a balanced scoring attack that is bolstered by Neal Smith (20-25-45), Andrew Smith (15-27-42), Bryan Jungles (16-22-38) and nine other players with multiple goals. Rogers has rotated goaltenders Keaton Mumm (8-2-1, 2.28, .918) and Robby Vukelich (10-4-0, 2.56, .903) for the past two seasons to great results.
St. Cloud Cathedral also fell by a single goal to the Hawks, also losing 2-1 on Jan. 13 in Hermantown. The Crusaders have won nine of their past 10 games -- although the only loss was to Rogers -- and seem to be in playoff mode. Senior Danny Johnston (27-24-51) is the veteran leader of a young squad that also features sophomores Austin Poganski (20-26-46) and Will Hammer (12-20-32) and junior defenseman Austin Swingle (6-19-25). Junior forward Mitchell Fritz (17-14-31) burst onto the scene with 14 goals in five games earlier this month. Cathedral also operates a goaltending tandem with Connor Amundson (7-3-0, 1.79, .929) and Josh Robak (12-2-0, 1.86, .911).
No. 4 Sauk Rapids-Rice (12-12-1) and No. 5 Proctor (10-14-0) meet up in the quarterfinals with the reward a likely shot at No. 1 Hermantown. Mitch Gwost (12-20-32) and Tyler Long (18-14-32) lead the Storm in scoring, while Proctor is paced by veterans Jeremy Lopez (21-23-44) and Ian Ecklund (24-19-43).
No. 6 Princeton (11-13-1) has upset potential with goaltender Ryan Carlson (10-13-1, 3.64, .876) and draws No. 11 Pine City/Rush City (4-19-2) in the opening round. No. 7 Legacy Christian (12-10-3) plays goal-starved No. 10 North Branch (4-19-1), which is averaging just 1.6 goals per game. Derek Graves (20-14-34) and No. 8 Mora/Hinckley-Finlayson (10-15-0) gets the unenviable first-round match-up against No. 9 Moose Lake Area (11-14-0) and the state's highest-scoring duo, Tyler Cisar (40-41-81) and Josh Cisar (62-27-89).
How do you pick against a team that hasn't lost a game? You don't. Top-ranked Hermantown is our choice to qualify for its third straight state tournament out of Section 5A. The Hawks have a team balanced across the board with both role players who get the job done and superstars who produce no matter the situation. High-scoring forward Jared Thomas is a Mr. Hockey finalist and the defensive corps of Jared Kolquist, Brian LeBlanc, Jake Zeleznikar and Owen Stauber is as good as any in the state.
We're reaching deep into the seeds to tab Princeton as our bracket buster. The sixth-seeded Tigers had a sub-.500 regular season, but did beat highly-regarded Little Falls twice and hung with both St. Cloud Cathedral and Rogers. The Tigers will have to score more than they did against Section 5A's top teams, but have the ability to do so with Jake Green, Daniel Voce and Dan Muench combining for 54 goals.
2011 - Hermantown
2010 – Hermantown
2009 – St. Cloud Cathedral
2008 – St. Cloud Cathedral
2007 – Blake
2006 – Blake
2005 – Totino-Grace
2004 – Breck
2003 – St. Louis Park
2002 – Totino-Grace
2001 – Benilde-St. Margaret's
2000 – Breck
1999 – Benilde-St. Margaret's
1998 – St. Louis Park
1997 – Breck
1996 – Breck
1995 – Blake
1994 – Minneapolis Edison