Defenseman Eli May (14) is one of a quartet of Wildcats to commit to D1 programs already this winter. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
Equal parts hockey players and hell raisers, Eagan’s infamous band of seniors didn’t endear themselves to some of their middle school teachers.
“I’m a middle school teacher, and they were the Rat Pack of our whole school,” Wildcats coach Mike Taylor said. “Now, some teachers liked that, and they drove some teachers crazy.
“They’ve been like that since they were 10 years old.”
Taylor, of course, can be counted on the “like” side of the ledger. He’s enjoyed every second of his time with a group that has reached the state Class 2A tournament for a second consecutive year.
“They are like brothers,” Taylor said. “They are so tight, they are such good friends and they love to compete. Our small-area games in practices are sometimes way more hatchetfests than (during games). They battle.
“And it doesn’t hurt that they are skilled.”
Eagan reached the state tournament by beating Hastings 10-1 for the Section 3AA championship. The Wildcats won their three section playoff games by a combined score of 29-1.
Four Wildcats seniors have committed to play at Division I programs, and it’s possible two or three more could someday play at that level.
“I think they match up very well with anyone in the state,” said longtime Hastings coach Russ Welch after Thursday’s Section 3AA title game. “What do they have, three Division I defensemen? It all starts back there with at least three good defensemen. Then they have two or three Division I forwards.
“They have six (Division I) guys, and we’re trying to get somebody into juniors.”
No. 4-ranked Eagan opens state Class 2A tournament play at 1 p.m. on Thursday against No. 10-ranked Moorhead at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul in a quarterfinal rematch from last season. The Wildcats beat the Spuds 4-0 last year before losing to eventual champion Eden Prairie 5-1 in the semifinals. Eagan finished third after a 5-3 triumph over Edina.
Almost all of Eagan’s top players return from last season’s deep playoff run. Senior Division I recruits Eli May (Minnesota State) and Sam Wolfe (Maine) lead one of the state’s deepest groups of defensemen, a veteran corps that also includes senior standouts Derick Kuchera and Connor McGovern.
Senior Mr. Hockey finalists Will Merchant (Maine) and Michael Zajac (Princeton) also have committed to Division I programs. Merchant and Zajac have been symbolic of the program’s rise to power over the past three seasons.
“I think we’ve been a lot more mature this year,” Zajac said. “This year we know what to expect. Last year was a shellshock stepping on that ice for the first time, seeing 18,000 people screaming.
“When the quarterfinal game comes, having that year of maturity will be nice.”
Senior Nick Kuchera is yet another top-end forward who played in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League last fall, and he shared the Wildcats’ regular season scoring title with Zajac with 47 points (Merchant had 45, including a team-best 23 goals).
While Eagan’s state tournament fate will undoubtedly ride on its 11 seniors, the wildcard for the Wildcats could be the play of juniors Zach Glienke and Cullen Willox. They are part of a second line that has emerged as an explosive scoring unit that can rival any in the state. Glienke scored 20 goals in the regular season and has seven more in the section playoffs. Willox shares the team postseason scoring lead with Glienke and Tommy Nowariak with eight points.
As for those middle schoolers who routinely tested their teachers’ patience, May admits there was an out-of-control element to their behavior.
“We’ve been playing together since mites, so we’ve developed a brotherhood there,” May said. “A lot of us live in the same cul-de-sac. We have good chemistry with each other and stuff, always finding each other on the ice.
“I guess maybe we were little punksters growing up, but what can you do?”
The checklist for state tournament success isn’t particularly long. Among the must haves are battle-tested seniors hungry for a title and a veteran corps of defensemen, preferably led by a DI caliber two-way threat. Check and check. A goaltender with game-stealing capabilities is also a must. Christian Butler has had a solid season but doesn’t yet have a state tournament pedigree.
Mike Taylor is in his ninth season as head coach of the Wildcats and has a 160-80-1 record heading into the state tournament. He said he doesn’t expect much of a hangover from the Wildcats’ stunning 10-1 rout of Hastings in the Section 3AA title game. “They better forget about it. They already celebrated. We’ve got work to do. We’ll prepare like we do for any Thursday game.”
Head Coach: Mike Taylor
Conference: South Suburban
Colors: Royal, Kelly Green, Silver, White
Assistant Coaches: Mike Thomas, Todd Carlson, Doug Wattson, Jim Becker, Ben Williams, Tom Freeman
Home Ice: Eagan Civic Arena, Eagan
State Tournament Appearances: Class AA: 2006, 2011
Section 3AA playoffs