North Branch sophomore Cody Croal (14) in the Class 1A Section 5 championship game against Chisago Lakes on Feb. 28. Photo: Earl J. Ebensteiner, SportsEngine
North Branch (19-7-2) vs. St. Cloud Cathedral (No. 2, 24-4), 11 a.m.
Scouting the Vikings: It’s only fitting North Branch, making its first tournament appearance, plays the morning game. Vikings players are up as early as 3:30 on weekdays for 5:15 a.m. practices at the team’s “home” rink in Chisago Lakes. There is no ice arena in North Branch or its adjacent communities. Sophomores Cody Croal, a wrecking ball in the corners who has team highs in goals (25) and points (48), and speedster Joey Kerchner (19 goals, 16 assists) lead the forwards.
Scouting the Crusaders: Star power is abundant on a Crusaders team that features two linemates who have verbally committed to Division I programs: junior forwards Nate Warner (Minnesota) and Jack Smith (Minnesota Duluth). Warner, out much of the regular season because of an upper body injury, was a force in three section playoff games, scoring four goals and adding six assists. Smith, who turned down an invitation to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program last summer, has 27 goals and 35 assists. Junior Blake Perbix leads the Crusaders in assists (46) and points (67).
Worth knowing: North Branch’s most famous hockey alum is Hunter Miska, a goaltender who played one season at Minnesota Duluth and has seen action this season for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.