After two years of disappointment, the nine seniors on Lakeville South's boys' hockey team finally broke through.
Led by four senior captains, the Cougars defeated Lakeville North 7-1 in the Section 1 final to reach the Minnesota boys' state hockey tournament. The Panthers had eliminated their crosstown rival the previous two years in the section final.
"It's a dream come true," said Joe Freemark, a defenseman and one of the captains. "This is what we've been hoping for the last three years. We've all been playing for three years, and the previous two letdown years just hurt and stung. We just really wanted it this year."
It's the team's first appearance at state in four years, and it marks the first time these current players have made the trip. The Cougars (20-8-0) will play No. 1-seeded Duluth East (27-1-0) in Thursday's Class 2A quarterfinal round at the Xcel Energy Center.
"The competition is going to be good," coach Kurt Weber said. "The teams that we've seen have good speed and good skill. I'm guessing it's anybody's race."
Weber attributed the Cougars' success during the state tournament run to their cohesiveness and desire to succeed together. Freemark and fellow captains Alex Harvey, Justin Kloos and Charlie Heller have played together for Lakeville South since their sophomore years.
"Our speed and our communication throughout the whole team is really good," said Harvey, who plays left wing. "We know what to do and when to do it. Each line knows what they're capable of."
Kloos, a Mr. Hockey finalist and University of Minnesota recruit, was the Class 2A leader in points (81) and in assists (47) during the regular season. The center's leadership and hockey skills have been pivotal in the team's state run.
"He's a one of a kind," Weber said. "He's one of the kids that makes everyone better. He's got more assists than goals, and for a kid with his talent, that says a lot. You usually don't see that. The things he does in the locker room and off the ice is the same on the ice."
Harvey adds more offensive firepower. He finished the season second on the team in scoring with 60 points, netting 28 goals and dishing out 32 assists.
"He's a great goal scorer," Weber said. "He's another one who can put the puck in the net. He has all year."
Heller and Freemark stabilize Lakeville South's defense corps. Weber said Freemark has second- or third-team All-Metro credentials while Heller utilizes his physical toughness and helps set the tone.
"This year we have a very talented team, Kloos said. "We're pretty good on special teams, power play and penalty kill. We're pretty deep. So we're a pretty well-rounded team and we're looking forward to continuing our pretty stellar season into the tourney."
Despite lacking state tournament experience, players for Lakeville South, which finished second in the South Suburban conference (13-4), feel confident they are ready for the challenge.
"We can't come in scared," Heller said. "We can play with any of those teams. They're all going to be good, but we just need to stay confident and play our game."
Eagan makes return trip
The Eagan boys' hockey team is headed back to state for the second consecutive year. The Wildcats finished third last year.
"What makes this group special is how close they all are, how they've all grown up together and that they've all stayed when they had chances to leave," coach Mike Taylor said.
The Wildcats (24-3-1) are the No. 3 seed and will play Moorhead (21-6), the Section 8 champions, on Thursday.
Taylor said playing good defense is key to making a strong tournament run. "Just being ourselves and not trying to be anything different,'' he said. "I think some teams get in that situation and try to be something they're not."
Eight Eagan players scored goals in a 10-1 victory over Hastings in the Section 3 finals, which secured their spot at state.
Calvin Swanson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.