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By Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA, 02/21/13, 4:15PM CST


Section 3A preview: Popularity of hockey soaring in Luverne, where Cardinals are No. 1 seed

Luverne's Toby Sengvongxay fires the puck into the zone during a Schwan Cup tournament game against Hudson (WI). The Cardinals are the top seed in the Section 3A playoffs and have won 15 of their past 16 games. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.

Luverne's Toby Sengvongxay. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen

The claim that southwestern Minnesota isn’t a hockey hotbed doesn’t surprise anyone. The area is known more for basketball powerhouses than its hockey programs, which often have to travel huge distances to schedule games.

Kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality if you will.

It also means that Section 3A – which encompasses much of that part of the state – has been an afterthought for fans of the sport.

That could be changing.

It certainly is in Luverne (21-3-1), which enters the playoffs as the top seed and looking to continue its record-setting season with a first-ever visit to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Cardinals returned a deep lineup of veterans that helped the team to a school-record 21 victories last year, but fell shy of their ultimate goal.

That returning core is hungry for a state bid. Seniors Skyler Wenninger (29-28---57), Austin Maxwell (5-32--37) and Jonny Solma (13-28--41) know this is their last shot at getting to St. Paul.

Juniors Gunnar Olson (21-32--53), Logan Norman (16-33--49) and Jordan Dingmann (10-11--21) provide plenty of firepower, as does quick and shifty sophomore defenseman Toby Sengvongxay (16-23--39).

And as if Luverne needed – or had room – for any newcomers, they were bolstered by freshman sensation Chaz Smedsrud (23-27--50), who gives the Cardinals seven double-digit goal scorers and 11 players with at least 16 points.

In goal, junior Kendall Meyer (18-3-1, 1.51, .925) is in his third season as a starter and among the top-10 in the state in goals-against average.

Still, the Cardinals must knock the champion from its perch.

If there’s a bully on the Section 3A block, it’s second-seeded New Ulm (12-12-1), the three-time defending champion. For every strength Luverne has, it seems as if the Eagles have a match.

It starts in goal with veteran junior Brach Kraus (10-10-1, 3.27, .891), who backstopped the team to the state tournament last winter.

Even with the graduation of 41-goal scorer Brody Peterson, the Eagles have found plenty of scoring depth from Blake Neumann (24-22--46), Wyatt Peterson (11-31--42), Brandon Helget (18-14--32), Judd Davis (14-15--29) and Ethan Kraus (12-8--20).

L/D-C's Braeden Wahl. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen

Third-seeded Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (9-16-0) will allow plenty of shots, as goaltender Braeden Wahl (9-16-0, 4.49, .889) has already faced 1,008 shots on net. But he’s also stopped almost 900 of them and combined with the efforts of the top line of Aaron Haataja (19-10--29 after a one-year “sabbatical” in Warroad while his father was coaching the Warriors), Kent Ryynanen (7-13--20) and Mike Spreiter (9-9--18), the Dragons could be ready to return to the X. They were the section rep in 2008 and entered those playoffs with a similar record – and seed – as this year’s team.

No. 4 Marshall (11-10--21) is a senior-led team with Quinn Horvath (18-14--32), Beau Mikel (14-10--24) and Corey Clark (9-11--20) pacing the team under first-year coach Dave Coudert. Goaltender Mason Campion (8-4-1, 2.90, .889) has been through the section playoff battles before and has started six of the last seven games after splitting time with Adam Cavazos (3-6-0, 3.20, .889).

Fifth-seeded Windom (13-9-0) actually has the second-best record in the section, largely on the shoulders of a potent top line of Travis Janssen (38-25--63), Zach Bartosh (21-24--45) and Devin Nielson (21-8--29). And despite being the lower seed, the Eagles actually upset Marshall 5-4 in the season opener as Janssen scored four goals and Nielsen netted the other. The Tigers did win the rematch 2-1 in mid-January by shutting down that line.

Hutchinson's L.J. Rogers. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.

Hutchinson's L.J. Rogers. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen

No. 6 Hutchinson (5-19-0) doesn’t have a good record but the school seems to annually develop top athletes and can put a dangerous team on the ice in the playoffs. The Tigers are anchored by two underclassmen in junior Tory Adams (8-15--23) and sophomore Matthew Cowger (13-10--23) but also have senior leadership with Logan Goosen (8-9--17) and Cody Nielsen (7-6--13). Limiting the other team’s chances has been an issue, though, as the Tigers are allowing 4.92 goals per game and an opposing 30.8 percent power play.

Seventh-seeded Redwood Valley (3-13-0) has had trouble at times on the opposite end of the rink, as the Cardinals are scoring just 2.31 goals per game and have no one with more than the seven goals scored by Austin Kretsch (7-10--17) and Chris Hallden (7-4--11). Redwood Valley did play a limited schedule with only 16 games, although the schedule heated up in February with the section quarterfinals as the sixth game of the month.

Eighth-seeded Worthington (2-15-0) shut out No. 9 Fairmont (2-18-1) in the play-in game Tuesday night to get a shot at top-seeded Luverne. The Trojans got an 18-save shutout from senior goaltender Ryan Scholtes (4-13-0, 5.46, .855). Three players have double-digit goals for Worthington; Levi Leach (12-11--23), Andrew Johnson (13-8--21) and Jacob Oberloh (11-5--16).

Fairmont sophomore goaltender Colton Cunning (2-15-1, 6.55, .848) was outstanding in the game with 36 saves, but the Cardinals couldn’t get on the board. Grant Becker (8-6--14) led the team in scoring and tied for the goals lead with Brock Johnson (8-1--9).

Hub Prediction

Is this the year that Luverne makes its long-awaited breakthrough and gets to the X? It sure looks like it on paper, where the Cardinals have two lines that can put the puck in the net, defensemen who can play in all three zones and a veteran goaltender. The growing hockey community in the southwest corner of the state can celebrate.

Bracket Buster

The regular season record and seeding indicates it's supposed to be a one-and-done tournament for Hutchinson. Not so fast. The Tigers play a difficult schedule, which accounts for some of the losses, and were led by youngsters who are now more seasoned heading into the playoffs. Don't be surprised to see Hutch reach the section final.

Past Champions

2012 – New Ulm
2011 – New Ulm

2010 – New Ulm
2009 – Hutchinson
2008 – Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato
2007 – St. Thomas Academy
2006 – St. Thomas Academy
2005 – St. Thomas Academy
2004 – South St. Paul
2003 – Simley
2002 – Red Wing
2001 – Mahtomedi
2000 – Farmington
1999 – St. Thomas Academy
1998 – Mahtomedi
1997 – Mahtomedi
1996 – Simley
1995 – Totino-Grace
1994 – Mahtomedi

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