Sky-high expectations at the start of the season gave way to seemingly endless frustration by the end of January for Duluth Marshall. But as any veteran coach will tell you, it's about building toward the playoffs.
Brendan Flaherty's Hilltoppers got healthy and found their stride midway through February, then finally started playing at a level that matched their preseason expectations.
An overtime loss to Cloquet/Esko/Carlton was where Flaherty saw his team come together, and a statement win against St. Cloud Cathedral on the road to close the regular season built a little swagger in the Duluth Marshall locker room.
Now the Hilltoppers are back in the Class 1A tournament after storming through the section 7A playoffs with wins over Eveleth-Gilbert, Hibbing/Chisholm and Duluth Denfeld. And the confidence of Duluth Marshall is as high as it's ever been. Flaherty and his team will be banking on that newly restored poise on Wednesday when they square off with Hermantown. The Hawks already beat the Hilltoppers this year, but as one Duluth Marshall player put it after the section final win, the Hilltoppers are a playoff team.
-- Zack Friedli
FORWARDS: Duluth Marshall's depth at forward makes it a line-matching nightmare. Between high-scoring Jeremy Lopez, Matthew Klassen and Kris McKinzie, along with talented two-way forwards Connor Flaherty and Michael Damberg, the Hilltoppers boast a good mix of speed, skill and grit up front. Young players, like Jack Dodd, Cam McClure and Derek Farrell are settling into roles nicely, too.
DEFENSE: The Hilltoppers are pretty inexperienced at the blue line, but they've been able to adapt throughout the year and feel as though they have a good group of defensemen at this point in the year. That group has only been solidified by the transition from forward by Anthony Miller, who got a ton of ice time and looked like a seasoned vet in the section tournament.
GOALTENDING: Caden Flaherty is the go-to guy for Duluth Marshall, and he'll have to be at his best for the Hilltoppers to stay hot.
Flaherty is in his 18th season guiding the Hilltoppers and has a career record of 321-179-13. Three times he's been named the section coach of the year and this is his eighth section title. Flaherty has also taken the Hilltoppers to three Class 1A championship games, but came up short each time. He's coached dozens of eventual college hockey players, including 2012 Hobey Baker recipient Jack Connolly of UMD. Flaherty is a 1982 graduate of the Marshall School (back when it was called Duluth Cathedral).
Getting past Hermantown will be the first step -- and the only one on the minds of Duluth Marshall at this point -- but if the Hilltoppers can upset the Hawks, who knows what this team can accomplish. Confidence goes a long, long way in high school sports.
Conference: Lake Superior
2012-13 Record: 16-12-0
State trips: 2001, 05, 06, 07, 08, 12, 13
Coach: Brendan Flaherty
Assistants: Dale Jago, Jason Watt, Mike curry
Home arena: MARS Lakeview Arena, Duluth
Last season: Lost to Little Falls in Class 1A consolation semifinals, 5-4