Eric Schurhamer (5) is the only defenseman among the 10 Mr. Hockey finalists. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
St. Thomas Academy scored 176 goals last season, averaging 5.7 per game while gunning its way to the state Class 1A championship.
Almost half of those goals came from Zach Schroeder, A.J. Reid and Matt Kroska, each of whom scored 27. All three graduated last spring.
This year the Cadets have relied on an altogether different approach in their attempt to defend their title. St. Thomas Academy allowed a stingy 39 goals in 25 regular season games. Through three Section 4A playoff games, the Cadets have allowed just two.
"Last year we were much more offensive," Cadets co-head coach Greg Vannelli said. "We had to reload a little bit, but we have played really well in our own zone."
Contributions on the blue line have been a major role in the Cadets' success in keeping the puck out of their net, but the biggest key has been the play of junior goaltender David Zevnik, who once again has proven to be a more than reliable mainstay in the crease.
"We have a great goalie," senior forward Andrew Commers said. "There have been a lot of times this season that he has come up with big saves in big games.
"There isn’t another goalie we would want to have at state than him."
Entering the state Class 1A tournament, Zevnik brings in an impressive 14-4-1 record, 1.75 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage, eerily similar numbers to what he had heading into St. Paul last season.
No. 2-seeded and No. 2-state ranked St. Thomas Academy (23-5-0) plays Little Falls (19-9-0) at 11 a.m. in the first of Wednesday's quarterfinal games at the Xcel Energy Center.
“He’s been unbelievable," Vannelli said. "Usually you don’t want to have a sophomore starting in net for you, but his demeanor for that position is nearly perfect.
"Whatever he did last year, he has shown no signs of letting up, and you need to have good goaltending in the state tournament."
Even though the Cadets have been strong on defense, they have proven that they are not inept when it comes to scoring. St. Thomas Academy has four players with 40 or more points.
Peter Krieger, who anchors the Cadets' top line, leads the way with 45 points (14 goals, 31 assists) and is joined by linemate Commers (21-19--40) to form a potent one-two scoring punch.
Alex Johnson (19-24--43) and Eric Schurhamer (15-27--42) have also eclipsed the 40-point mark.
Schurhamer, a senior defenseman, is one of 10 finalists for the Mr. Hockey award giving annually to the state's top senior skater. The only defenseman among the finalists, he has committed to play at Maine.
Though their scoring totals do not have the glamour compared to what the Cadets put up year ago, they are still getting the results they need.
"We had a lot of talent last year," Commers said. "It’s not to say we don’t have it this year, but we have guys in our locker room that have a lot of heart and work hard.
"It’s been a little different this year, but we are winning games and are back at state."
Totino-Grace coach Mark Loahr has seen his team’s season end at the hands of the Cadets for two consecutive seasons, including a 2-1 overtime defeat in the Section 4A finals on March 2.
Loahr has noticed the difference in St. Thomas Academy’s play.
"They play really good defense," he said. "Last year everyone knew they had the firepower to score, but this team is really impressive and tough to beat because of their defensive play."
Is this season's version of the Cadets good enough to defend their title?
"I thought anyone who came from our section (4A) would be able to win state," Loahr said. "They have guys like Commers who have been there and done that, and they have a goalie (Zevnik) that is one of the better ones out there."
With the power that represents the Class 1A tournament field, especially the offense, Zevnik and company will have to maintain or even ramp up their play in the defensive zone.
"Defense wins championships," Zevnik said. "We have been playing really well there all season, so hopefully we can keep it up."
In addition to the difficulty of getting through the teams in state tournament, the Cadets have the proverbial target on their back as defending state champions.
While that may be strenuous for most teams, Vannelli said it is something that comes with the territory in playing for St. Thomas Academy.
"I think over the past five or six years, we have had that," he said. "We are used to it and that shouldn’t be a problem for us."
"We just have to continue to play our game," Commers said. "As long as we do that, we give ourselves a shot."
The Cadets already have defeated three state tourney entrants in Duluth Marshall, Rochester Lourdes and Breck. Three of St. Thomas Academy’s losses this season were by one goal to Class 2A powerhouses who have won their sections. "We have played in a lot of close games this year," Cadets co-head coach Greg Vannelli said. "I would think that would help us at state."
Since brothers Greg and Tom Vannelli took over as the co-head coaches at St. Thomas Academy in 2003, state tournament appearances have become the norm. The 2011-2012 season marks the sixth time the Cadets will play at the Xcel Energy Center (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012). The Cadets won titles in 2006, 2008 and 2011. Tom Vanelli was a standout high school player at St. Paul Academy and later starred at the University of Minnesota.
Head Coaches: Greg and Tom Vannelli
Conference: Classic Suburban
Colors: Royal Blue, White
Assistant Coaches: Bill Owens, Jerry Maybrey
Home Ice: St. Thomas Ice Arena, Mendota Heights
State Tournament Appearances:1999 (Class A), 2005 (Class A), 2006 (Class A), 2007 (Class A), 2008 (Class A), 2011 (Class A)
State Titles: 3 (2006, Class A; 2008, Class A; 2011 Class A)
Section 4A playoffs