The excitement surrounding the Class 1A, Section 7 final between top-seeded Hermantown and second-seeded Duluth Marshall was obvious from the time the doors opened at Amsoil Arena on Wednesday night. However, the eventual winning team was not.

The Hilltoppers, by exerting control early in the first period, quickly quieting the rambunctious Hawks’ fans, whose students alone filled two full sections.

Hermantown gradually tilted the ice in its favor behind the play of top-liners Ryan Kero, Nate Pionk and Cole Koepke en route to a 4-0 victory that sent the Hawks to their sixth consecutive Class 1A state tournament.

“I feel a lot of pride for this team and our program because these kids have been really great,” Hermantown coach Bruce Plante said. “I’m really proud of all the guys. It’s a lot of pressure to keep doing it, but it’s just so great for these kids.”

The Hilltoppers (19-6-3) started strong and built a 4-0 advantage in shots within the game’s first 5 minutes. Duluth Marshall maintained the momentum until Kero, Pionk and Koepke wrestled control way in the second period and the Hawks (25-2-1) never gave it back.

Kero finished with two goals, including one on a power play to open the scoring 3 minutes, 15 seconds into the second period.

Pionk earned an assist on Kero's goal, and also scored a goal midway through the third period.

Koepke set up Kero’s second goal with less than 6 minutes remaining in the game. 

The linemates also made an impact on defense as they blocked shots, cut down shot angles, clogged up lanes or stripped the puck from Duluth Marshall.

“That’s a go-to line any time you need them,” he said. “(The Hilltoppers) kept playing two lines, so we kept matching our top lines against theirs. It worked out for us.”

Kero, Pionk and Koepke have played a huge part in Hermantown’s success this season, including leading the Hawks to a 3-0 mark against the Hilltoppers.

“They’ve been great,” Plante said. “They’re just great leaders and three really good hockey players. They always seem to know where each other are on the ice.”

Kero and Pionk are seniors while Koepke is a junior, and their leadership is key for a Hawks team hoping to make a long run in the state tournament.

Plante said the experience his team gained from its previous trips to St. Paul is also going to be a factor in helping the Hawks handle the pressure of playing in the state tournament.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that have been there,” Plante said. “We have eight players who have been to the last two state tournaments, and of course the sophomores haven’t, but they’ve watched us for a number of years from the stands as little kids. They’ve never experienced it, but they could certainly see what it’s like. They’ll follow the captains, they’ll follow the seniors.”

And there’s every reason to believe the Hawks will continue following Kero, Pionk and Koepke.

First Report

Ryan Kero had two goals to help top-seeded Hermantown advance to its sixth consecutive Class 1A state tournament with a 4-0 victory over second-seeded Duluth Marshall in the Section 7 championship game Wednesday night at AMSOIL Arena in Duluth.

The game started as a back-and-forth battle but turned into a shutout as the Hawks (25-2-1), ranked No. 1 in the final Class 1A coaches poll, exerted control in the second period behind the play of Hermantown’s first line of Kero, Nate Pionk and Cole Koepke. 

Kero caught a pass from Nate Pionk and skated in on Hilltopper goalie Alex Murray, scoring a power-play goal 3 minutes into the second period. 

The Hawks increased the lead to 2-0 on Parker Hawk’s goal 10 minutes later.

Pionk and Kero added goals in the third period. 

Murray saw plenty of action for No. 6-1A Marshall (19-6-3) as Hermantown finished with 29 shots.

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