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Teams gear up for section showdowns

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 02/20/11, 10:22PM CST

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Hill-Murray, Blaine have history of deep playoff runs

For the past five seasons, coaches Dave Aus and Bill Lechner have enjoyed a rare run of section playoff stability.

Aus and Lechner have led Blaine and Hill-Murray, respectively, to the past five Class 2A tournaments, a feat no other program can match. Both teams play their section semifinals and finals at the Warner Coliseum on the State Fairgrounds, a building one of Aus’ assistant coaches refers to as “Fogerty South,” the Bengals’ home away from home. Lechner, meanwhile, dons a special sweater for the section championship game for superstitious reasons.

But both coaches come into the section playoffs this week like every other coach, looking for the right words and game plans while hoping good health and good bounces find them. Play-in games and quarterfinals begin Tuesday in some sections, setting in motion a two-week grind of games that will decide the eight state tournament qualifying teams in both classes.

“We’ve tried to stress never getting emotionally too high or too low because if something happens, it can knock you off your game,” Aus said.

No collection of teams is more potent than the top four seeds in Class 2A, Section 6. Eden Prairie is the No. 1 seed, followed by Wayzata and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Rounding out this collection of top-10 teams is defending section champion Minnetonka. If both teams advance, the semifinal showdown of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka will be a rematch of last season’s section final.

All four teams boast some of the state’s top players. Is Eden Prairie’s duo of Mr. Hockey candidate Kyle Rau and defenseman Nick Seeler the most dynamic, or is it Wayzata’s Mr. Hockey candidate Tony Cameranesi and Mario Lucia? Benilde-St. Margaret’s will count on a deep group of forwards and Wisconsin-bound defenseman Patrick Daly. And players such as Thomas Schutt, a strong two-way forward, give Minnetonka some grit and experience.

“We know the ups and downs of these games,” Skippers coach Brian Urick said. “We were the No. 1 seed last year, but none of our games were easy. Coming in No. 4 is nice because I think the higher-seeded teams tend to grip their sticks a little tighter.”

Only two Class 2A sections have defending champions that earned No. 1 seeds: reigning state champion Edina (Section 2) and Hill-Murray (4). Both teams have injury concerns. Senior Hornets defenseman Max Everson should return from a wrist injury, while the Pioneers hope to have sophomore Zach LaValle (leg) back to contribute on the second line and top power-play unit.

In Section 3, Eagan earned the No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season, setting up a potential showdown with defending section champion and No. 2 seed Apple Valley. The South Suburban Conference rivals each feature a pair of strong forwards: the Wildcats’ Michael Zajac and Will Merchant vs. the Eagles’ A.J. Michaelson and Hudson Fasching. Eagan won the teams’ first meeting, the second ended in a tie.

If Blaine hopes to win a sixth consecutive section championship, the No. 2 seed Bengals must pull an upset in Section 5. Maple Grove, the top seed, tied and beat the Bengals in Northwest Suburban Conference action.

Class 1A

In Class 1A, the pressure is on Blake to live up to its No. 1 seed in Section 2 and dethrone two-time defending state champion Breck. But the Mustangs dispatched Blake 5-1 in Saturday’s regular-season finale, serving notice that heavy graduation losses have not left them out of the race.

“That was huge for us,” Breck coach Les Larson said. “But in my four years at Breck, this section is the strongest yet.”

St. Thomas Academy, the top-ranked team in Class 1A and the No. 1 seed in Section 4, hopes for a return to state after two consecutive losses to Mahtomedi in the section finals. The Zephyrs have the No. 4 seed, meaning a semifinal matchup looms.

Northern schools Hermantown (Section 5), Virginia-Mt. Iron/Buhl (7) and Warroad (8) are once again the top seeds in their respective sections.

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