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Minnetonka on a mission

03/08/2010, 12:04am CST
By Loren Nelson, Editor

Class AA preview: Skippers intent on shedding 'can't win big one' label

Dating back to their youth hockey days -- it's been far too many years, Minnetonka senior Troy Hesketh will tell you -- the Skippers always seem to run into a better team come playoff time.

Edina, Wayzata, Eden Praire -- especially Eden Prairie. This group of Minnetonka players has hit roadblock after roadblock, never winning a state title at any level.

"We're tired of being labeled as choke artists," Hesketh said after Minnetonka beat Eden Prairie in the Section 6AA final at the Target Center.

In what would have made a fine state championship matchup based on the teams' pedigrees -- Minnetonka was ranked No. 1 and Eden Prairie No. 3 in Class AA --- the Skippers surged past the defending state champion Eagles 7-2.

That resounding victory made Minnetonka (25-1-2) the obvious choice to draw the No. 1 seed in the state tournament. While the Skippers are the clear favorite, the other three seeded teams -- Edina, Blaine and Hill-Murray -- each feel good about their chances of making a championship run.

No. 2 seed Edina (20-6-2) is the only team to beat the Skippers this season (although the Hornets lost twice to them as well). This year's Hornets have commonly been referred to as a "lunch bucket" or "hard hat" team (pick your favorite blue-collar cliche), but don't be fooled. There is plenty of finesse and skill mixed in with all that grunting and grinding.

No. 3 Blaine (21-4-3) lost a back-and-forth 4-3 thriller to Minnetonka in late December, a game that proved the Bengals have the high-end players to compete with the Skippers. The Bengals have a rare talent in sniper Nick Bjugstad, their 6-foot-4 Mr. Hockey finalist whose shot is so powerful and accurate he needs only to flick his wrists to change the course of a game.

Hill-Murray (25-2-1), the No. 4 seed, didn't play Minnetonka during the regular season. In fact, the Pioneers probably had the softest schedule of any of the seeded teams. Soft is a relative term here, however, as Hill-Murray played four games against talented conference foes St. Thomas Academy and Mahtomedi and went out of its way to schedule quality nonconference opponents (the Pioneers finished the regular season with a victory in distant Moorhead).

Among the unseeded teams, Apple Valley (17-11-0) might be the most intriguing. The Eagles already have won two eight-team tournaments in which they weren't the favorite, emerging from a holiday tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., and the Section 3AA tournament (they were the No. 4 seed) with the championship hardware.

To make it 3-for-3, Apple Valley would need a spectacular three games from junior goaltender Aaron Gretz, whose regular season statistics were merely solid. The Eagles have two dangerous forward lines, one of which is led by youngsters Hudson Fasching (a freshman) and sophomore A.J. Michaelson.

Roseau (22-5-1) features two of the state's best forwards in Adam Knochenmus and Shane Omdahl, and if tradition counts for anything, go ahead and give the Rams an extra goal or two simply based on their 33 state tournament appearances and seven championships (both state records).

Duluth East's 5-1 pounding of Elk River in the Section 7AA final was an eye-opener, given the Elks were the top seed, play a tight defensive style and have one of the state's best goaltenders in sophomore Anders Franke.

Lakeville North (11-15-2) is the surprise team of the tournament. The Panthers finished seventh in the 11-team Lake Conference and were seeded third in the Section 1AA tournament. They enter the tournament with an 11-15-2 record.

Blaine's Nick Bjugstad (pictured at right) is the top scorer (35 goals, 34 assists) in the tournament and, perhaps more than any player in the field, has the ability to take over a game. He was dominant at times in the Section 5AA playoffs, when he played every other shift during portions of hotly contested semifinal and championship game wins. The Bengals' Eric Scheid (23 goals, 29 assists) also is having a superb season and is one of the state's most underrated forwards.

No team has an array of stars that can top Minnetonka's, however. The Skippers have two Mr. Hockey finalists in powerful forward Max Gardiner (19 goals, 30 assists) and smooth-skating defenseman Justin Holl (19 goals, 15 assists). Like Gardiner and Holl, both of whom have committed to Minnesota, defensemen Andrew Prochno (St. Cloud State) and Troy Hesketh (Wisconsin) have comitted to WCHA schools.

Edina and Hill-Murray can't match the star power of Minnetonka and Blaine. But both teams are similar in that they get consistent scoring from three lines and steady play their five top defenseman.

Hill-Murray gets an added offensive boost from senior defenseman Chris Casto, a UM-Duluth recruit who has 13 goals and 18 assists.

Edina's Steven Fogarty (20 goals, 16 assits) has emerged as the team's most dangerous scorer, but Charlie Taft (17g, 10a) and Michael Sit (12g, 15a) also have a potent combination of speed and skill.

Roseau's Adam Knochenmus and Shane Omdahl have combined for 116 points and were on pace for an even more productive season when Knochenmus suffered a shoulder injury that knocked him out of lengthy stretch of games. Knochenmus is healthy again, making Roseau's top line one of the best in the tournament.

Apple Valley coach Jerry Hayes made a point of downplaying his team's youth after the Eagles won the Section 3AA title behind the brilliant play of freshman Hudson Fasching and sophomore A.J. Michaelson, each of whom scored two goals in the 4-0 triumph over Woodbury. Fasching (23g, 17a) and Michaelson (18g, 16a) lead the Eagles in scoring.

"It doesn't matter how old you are," Hayes said. "If you can play, you can play."

Lakeville North is led by two sophmores, defenseman Brady Skjei (10g, 18a) and forward Nate Arentz (20g, 11a) and Duluth East features another star defenseman in a field loaded with them in UM-Duluth recruit Andy Welinski (4g, 17a).

Forwards Yr. G A Pts
Nick Bjugstad Jr. 35 34 69
Shane Omdahl Jr. 27 39 66
Eric Scheid Sr. 23 29 52
Derek Frawley Jr. 18 33 51
Adam Knochenmus Sr. 21 29 50
Max Gardiner Sr. 19 30 49
Jonny Brodzinski Jr. 22 26 48
Max Coatta Fr. 23 22 45
Willie Faust Sr. 22 22 44
Thomas Schutt Jr. 20 22 42
Hudson Fasching Fr. 23 17 40
Gavin Tufte Sr. 20 17 37
Steven Fogarty Jr. 20 16 36
Ben Bahe Jr. 14 22 36
A.J. Michaelson So. 18 16 34
Jake Randolph So. 5 27 32
Nate Arentz So. 20 11 31
Defensemen Yr. G A Pts
Andrew Prochno Sr. 8 31 39
Justin Holl Sr. 19 15 34
Tony Larson Sr. 6 26 32
Chris Casto Sr. 13 18 31
Brady Skjei So. 10 18 21
Andy Welinski Jr. 4 17 21
Troy Hesketh Sr. 3 16 19
David Jarrett Sr. 4 13 17
Goalies Yr. W-L-T GAA SV%
Jim Kruger Sr. 17-1-2 1.58 .935
Tim Shaughnessy Jr. 21-2-1 1.54 .926
Connor Girard Sr. 10-3-1 1.77 .915
Danny Harper Jr. 17-4-3 2.27 .911
Jo Jo Jeanetta Jr. 12-4-4 1.83 .910
Ethan Kvidt Sr. 22-5-1 2.21 .909

Hub Prediction

Team Record
  Minnetonka 25-1-2

It's tough to pick against the Skippers, who are in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in modern history. Rushing defensemen Justin Holl and Andrew Prochno give Minnetonka's offense a dynamic few high school teams can match. With yet another star defenseman, Troy Hesketh, handing the dirty work in the defensive zone, there are precious few weaknesses here to exploit.

Bracket Buster

Team Record
  Roseau 22-5-1

Why not Roseau? Northern teams typically fare well on the big stage, and a coaching staff led by Andy Lundbohm and including legendary Minnesota hockey figures and former NHLers Aaron Broten and Bryan "Butsy" Erickson will get the most out of the Rams. Keep an eye on Adam Knochenmus, who is absolutely relentless on the forecheck.

State Tournament Guide

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Past Champions

Two Class
2009
Class AA – Eden Prairie
Class A – Breck
2008
Class AA – Hill-Murray
Class A – St. Thomas Academy
2007
Class AA – Roseau
Class A – Hermantown
2006
Class AA – Cretin-Derham Hall
Class A – St. Thomas Academy
2005
Class AA – Holy Angels
Class A – Warroad
2004
Class AA – Centennial
Class A – Breck
2003
Class AA – Anoka
Class A – Warroad
2002
Class AA – Holy Angels
Class A – Totino-Grace
2001
Class AA – Elk River
Class A – Benilde-St. Margaret's
2000
Class AA – Blaine
Class A – Breck
1999
Class AA – Roseau
Class A – Benilde-St. Margaret's
1998
Class AA – Duluth East
Class A – Eveleth-Gilbert
1997
Class AA – Edina
Class A – Red Wing
1996
Class AA – Apple Valley
Class A – Warroad
1995
Class AA – Duluth East
Class A – International Falls
1994
Class AA – Bloomington Jefferson
Class A – Warroad

Two Tier
1993
Tier I – Bloomington Jefferson
Tier II – Eveleth-Gilbert
1992
Tier I – Bloomington Jefferson
Tier II – Greenway

Single Class
1991 – Hill-Murray
1990 – Roseau
1989 – Bloomington Jefferson
1988 – Edina
1987 – Bloomington Kennedy
1986 – Burnsville
1985 – Burnsville
1984 – Edina
1983 – Hill-Murray
1982 – Edina
1981 – Bloomington Jefferson
1980 – Grand Rapids
1979 – Edina East
1978 – Edina East
1977 – Rochester John Marshall
1976 – Grand Rapids
1975 – Grand Rapids
1974 – Edina East
1973 – Hibbing
1972 – International Falls
1971 – Edina
1970 – Minneapolis Southwest
1969 – Edina
1968 – Greenway
1967 – Greenway
1966 – International Falls
1965 – International Falls
1964 – International Falls
1963 – St. Paul Johnson
1962 – International Falls
1961 – Roseau
1960 – Duluth East
1959 – Roseau
1958 – Roseau
1957 – International Falls
1956 – Thief River Falls
1955 – St. Paul Johnson
1954 – Thief River Falls
1953 – St. Paul Johnson
1952 – Hibbing
1951 – Eveleth
1950 – Eveleth
1949 – Eveleth
1948 – Eveleth
1947 – St. Paul Johnson
1946 – Roseau
1945 – Eveleth

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