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Can Flyers close the deal?

By Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA, 02/16/12, 11:10AM CST


Section 6A preview: Little Falls earns top seed for second straight season

Michael Stumpf (1) and the Little Falls defense could be tested by Fergus Falls' Jake Ahlgren (12) and the Otters. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.

Willmar's Hunter Schneider is a key veteran for the Cardinals' hopes. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.

It may be cliche for coaches at this time of the year to use the phrase, "One game at a time." But Little Falls (16-9-0), the top seed in Section 6A each of the last two seasons, knows there is a reason for it to exist.

Agonizingly so.

The Flyers entered last year's section tournament as the prohibitive favorite, but were shockingly upset by No. 9 seed St. Cloud Apollo in the quarterfinals. It was believed to be the first time in state history a ninth-seed upset a No. 1.

Expect the cliche to be well-used around the Flyers' locker room this playoff season, as many of the same players return with an unpleasant memory of that game.

Coach Tony Couture also has the motivation of a three-game losing streak to end the season, a stretch in which the Flyers' historically potent offense sputtered with just one total goal. That may be the story in this playoff season, as instead of the high-powered, high-flying offenses of past seasons, Little Falls relies on its defense this winter.

After a rough 3-6-0 start to the year, Little Falls ripped off a 13-game winning streak from Dec. 22 to Feb. 2 in which it allowed only 12 goals. Goaltender Michael Stumpf (16-9-0, 2.18, .910) also struggled early while breaking in a new catching glove, but has been playing at an All-State level since then. He's quick and athletic and anchors the Flyers' strong defensive unit.

Despite the closing offensive skid, there is still firepower up front, as well. Senior Joey Hanowski (22-21-43) has more of a grinder-type game than his more well-publicized relatives, but he's a fiery leader who brings toughness. Ben Newman (19-21-40), Luke Majerle (12-28-40), and Austin Bjorge (14-6-20) add goal-scoring depth and are conscientious in their own zone. Rugged Matt Stumpf (5-12-17), Spencer Fenske (2-12-14), Nathan Adamietz and Mike Anez lead the defensive corps.

Alexandria's Ben Allen is one of two state tournament veteran goalies for the Cardinals. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.

Alexandria (11-11-2) took advantage of Little Falls' stumble last year by advancing to its second straight state tournament -- as the No. 5 seed. The Cardinals are more highly-regarded this time around and picked up the No. 2 seed. Like the Flyers, Alexandria is powered by a strong defense and goaltender Ben Allen (10-11-2, 3.30, .903), who started during last year's state tournament run as a sophomore.

Jake Ahlgren (19-29-48) of No. 3 Fergus Falls (12-10-1) is one of the top goal-scorers in a section that plays games close to the vest. He's quick and shifty and will be counted on to get the Otters back to the state tournament for the first time since 2003, the final year of a seven-year streak of state bids.

No. 4 Sartell-St. Stephen (6-16-2) has struggled to score much of the year, averaging only 2.13 goals per game and led by Isaiah Merteshippers (7-2-9) with just seven. No. 5 St. Cloud Apollo (10-12-2) relies on the duo of Jared Christen (21-15-36) and Paul Kenney (20-9-29) to bury the puck, mostly fed by Bryan Benson (9-29-38).

Breckenridge/Wahpeton (16-5-0) has a terrific record in its first season since coming over from North Dakota high school hockey. The Blades picked up the No. 6 seed -- and plenty of respect along the way. Cody Bronson (26-7-33) is a heavy-hitting sniper who leads the section in goals.

The remaining four seeds, No. 7 Willmar (8-16-0), No. 8 Prairie Centre Area (14-9-1), No. 9 Morris/Benson Area (10-13-1) and No. 10 Wadena-Deer Creek (1-23-0) all have players to watch, but must overcome the stigma of advancing out of the play-in games. If they do make a deep run, keep an eye on the contributions of Willmar's Hunter Schneider (17-21-38), Prairie Centre's duo of Cody Bartkowicz (20-20-40) and Nate Mettenburg (20-20-40), Morris/Benson's top line anchored by sniper Tanner Picht (23-18-41), and Wadena-Deer Creek's junior combo of Mitchell Swanson (20-19-39) and Bridger Pettit (18-14-32).

Scoring Leaders G A Pts
Jake Ahlgren 19 29 48
Joey Hanowski 22 21 43
Tanner Picht 23 18 41
Cody Barkowicz 20 20 40
Nate Mettenberg 20 20 40
Ben Newman 19 21 40
Luke Majerle 12 28 40
Goaltending Leaders W-L-T GAA SV%
Michael Withuski 8-2-0 2.28 .918
Michael Stumpf 16-9-0 2.19 .910
Ben Allen 10-11-2 3.30 .903

Hub Prediction

Team Regular Season
Little Falls 16-9-0

Buoyed by a huge midseason run, Little Falls returns to the Section 6A field as the favored team. The Flyers were in that position last year, but were upset by ninth-seeded St. Cloud Apollo in a shocking quarterfinal loss. What's different this season? Experience. Last year's team was largely led by sophomores and juniors who return with a chip on their shoulders. The Flyers are also much stronger defensively in front of All-State caliber goaltender Michael Stumpf.

Bracket Buster

Team Regular Season
St. Cloud Apollo 10-12-2

Why? Better yet, why not? Apollo was the bracket buster last year and everything is set up for a repeat this winter. The Eagles are seeded fifth, which means a first-round game at Sartell-St. Stephen (which has two narrow victories over Apollo this year). An upset there brings Apollo right back into a likely semifinal game with Little Falls -- and in the Eagles' back yard at the Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud.

Past Champions

2011 - Alexandria
2010 - Alexandria
2009 – Little Falls
2008 – Little Falls
2007 – Orono
2006 – Orono
2005 – Shakopee
2004 – Orono
2003 – Orono
2002 – Orono
2001 – Mound-Westonka
2000 – Hutchinson
1999 – Blake
1998 – Mound-Westonka
1997 – Hutchinson
1996 – Litchfield
1995 – Hutchinson
1994 – Breck

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