Junior Jake Rahbain (8) and the Cougars' defense figure to be tested by top-seeded Duluth East. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
Justin Kloos wasn’t involved in the draw that determined the quarterfinal matchups for the state Class 2A tournament.
Or so we think.
Kloos is the sort of kid who, given the chance to go mountain climbing, wouldn’t be satisfied unless he had scaled Everest.
“They are jazzed, they really are,” Lakeville South coach Kurt Weber said about the Cougars’ reaction to playing high-powered East, high school hockey’s version of the world’s highest peak. “For us, it is good motivation.”
For Kloos, it is a chance to go head-to-head with Duluth East’s Jake Randolph. Kloos and Randolph are two of the 10 finalists and, narrowing the field even further, obvious frontrunners for the coveted Mr. Hockey award.
“He’s such a competitive kid, I might have to tell him this isn’t between you and Jake Randolph,” Weber said with a laugh. “But he isn’t that type of player. He has more assists than goals. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Kloos, a senior forward who has committed to play at the University of Minnesota, has 99 points this season as a brilliant follow up to his 90-point junior campaign. With 234 career points (105 goals, 129 assists) he ranks 21st on the state’s all-time scoring list.
The Cougars (20-8-0) square off against Duluth East at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“People who haven’t seen him are in for the treat,” Weber said. “NHL scouts have said some things to me about what they see in him that just floor me.”
Weber can tell some stories, too.
There was the time when Kloos, matched up in a scrimmage against a Division I recruit and state scoring leader, made it a point to skate the puck straight at the star player.
“He loves the challenge of playing against the best people,” Weber said. “Four times he went across the rink instead of just skating it up along the boards.”
Earlier this season against state tournament entrant Hill-Murray, Kloos pounced on a turnover in the Lakeville South defensive zone. Weber said he was astounded to see all five Pioneers players immediately abandon the forecheck and head toward the opposite end of the rink.
“All five Hill guys turned around backward to play defense,” Weber said. “This is one of the best-coached teams in the state. (Hill-Murray coach) Bill Lechner is screaming at the top of his lungs. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Playing with and against most of the state’s top players last fall in the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League, Kloos was the league’s runaway scoring leader. Weber says Kloos is even more effective playing with longtime teammates and fellow seniors such as linemate Alex Harvey (36-41--77) and defensemen Joe Freemark (13-30--43) and Charlie Heller (2-20--22).
“They are just phenomenal kids,” Weber said about his senior class, which has twice lost heartbreaking section championship matchups to intracity rival Lakeville North before this year’s breakthrough. “Justin returned to be with his buddies and to play with them in the state tournament.
“I think he was carrying as much burden as I was to get there.”
Lakeville South doesn’t figure to have the depth and big-game experience to go the distance with battle-hardened Duluth East. But state scoring leader Justin Kloos is the definition of a gamechanger, and if he can sneak behind the Greyhounds defense a few times ... well, who knows?
Kurt Weber has been the Cougars’ coach since their inception, and he’s guided them to two state tournament berths in seven seasons while compiling a 104-90-7 record.
Section 1AA playoffs