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Hermantown celebrated its 3-0 victory over Duluth Marshall during the Class 1A quarterfinals. Star Tribune photo

Hermantown boys’ hockey coach Bruce Plante howled before last season’s Class 1A state tournament championship game about metro-area private schools and their advantage in drawing from a larger population.
 
Privately, he worried his undefeated and top-ranked Hawks had peaked too soon. A 5-1 loss to St. Thomas Academy provided proof.
 
The Hawks’ mood was improved after Wednesday’s 3-0 quarterfinal victory against Duluth Marshall. The Hawks entered the tournament as a less-heralded third seed and felt their worst hockey is in the past.
 
“We’ve all stepped up our game because we realize this is the time we have to play our best,” senior Bo Gronseth said.
 
Plante stopped short of saying his players, all but five of whom made their state tournament debuts, have cleared all their mental hurdles.
 
“We were a little uptight for the first period, as we were in the section final against St. Cloud Cathedral,” he said. “So the jury is still out.”
 
But his players feel less pressure. Senior Travis Koepke said last season’s undefeated record became a burden.
 
“That was something everyone said, ‘Don’t think about being undefeated,’?” Koepke said. “But when you look at your own student section and see signs that say, ‘All we do is win,’ it starts to get in your head.
 
“We were a better team than we showed against St. Thomas,” Koepke said.
 
Said Plante: “They carried that burden so long it became kind of heavy. I think the older guys on this team are not going to be that way.”
 
These Hawks appear better prepared to handle the spotlight. A 1-3 slump in early January humbled players. Their current 13-game winning streak boosted their confidence.
 
Duluth Marshall coach Brendan Flaherty said, “That’s a pretty quality team. They might just have the team that can pull it off.”
 
Hermantown advances to play No. 2 seed Breck in Friday’s semifinals. 
 
“It’s going to be a battle,” Mustangs coach Les Larson said. “Hermantown is always good. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”

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