East Grand Forks' sophomore defenseman Tye Ausmus (12) slows down Rochester Lourdes' Jason Samuelson (7) during the Green Wave's 3-2 Class 1A quarterfinal victory Wednesday night. Photos by Adam Crane.
On the eve of the Class 1A state hockey tournament, East Grand Forks head coach Tyler Palmiscno and assistant Scott Oliver had a quick meeting after dinner.
But it wasn't so much a strategy meeting as it was a philosophical discussion. The two didn't directly talk about Wednesday's quarterfinal match-up with Rochester Lourdes. They certainly didn't mention a possible semifinal showdown with top-ranked St. Thomas Academy. No, the conversation was much simpler than that.
They focused solely on a new defensive mindset that has propelled it to this point.
"Our (overall) system really hasn't changed," explained Palmiscno, whose team is in the state tourney field for the first time since 2002. "The biggest thing is that it's an attitude. It's a commitment and a realization that you can't win without playing defense."
Palmiscno, in his first season as head coach after sharing duties the past few years, gave plenty of credit to Oliver for the new mentality. Oliver, a former head coach at the University of Minnesota-Crookston and Roseau High School, was put in charge of defensive zone coverage.
Senior Tommy Hajicek (17) rubs out Lourdes' Jason Samuelson.
Entering the Class 1A state quarterfinals, East Grand Forks (23-3-3) had posted 10 shutouts and allowed a measly 1.57 goals per game this winter.
"We're proud of our kids because they bought into it from day one," Palmiscno said. "It's not easy to change an attitude like that."
That mindset certainly was on display in the Green Wave's 3-2 victory over Rochester Lourdes in Wednesday's quarterfinals at the Xcel Energy Center. They held the Eagles' powerful duo of Alex Funk and Jason Samuelson off the scoreboard for 2-1/2 periods, enough time to build up a three-goal lead that was just large enough. Through 40 minutes Wednesday, Lourdes was finding little room in the offensive zone. The Eagles had just seven shots on goal and no decent scoring opportunities.
A combination of young and talented defensemen and forwards who are willing to backcheck as hard as they forecheck has made East Grand Forks a miserable draw for opposing offenses.
"They're all in," junior defenseman Colton Poolman said of the Green Wave's forwards. "It really makes the defense's job easier when they know the trailer is covered and they can just take their guy."
That mindset will be tested like never before Friday afternoon, though. The Green Wave draw the powerful -- and seemingly invincible -- two-time defending champions from St. Thomas Academy. Palmiscno still wasn't ready to discuss strategy against the Cadets, but Poolman did note that every shift they "have to be ready for someone who can beat you."
Then again, St. Thomas Academy has rarely seen a defense quite like East Grand Forks.
"Going out there every play and playing tough defense," Poolman said.
"That's what we're about right now."
-- Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA
Alex Funk (20) and teammate Jason Samuelson are 1-2 in career scoring at Rochester Lourdes.
Rochester Lourdes has qualified for the Class 1A state tournament five straight years -- the last four coinciding with the record-breaking careers of seniors Jason Samuelson and Alex Funk.
Unfortunately for the Eagles and their superstar leaders, quarterfinal action has not been kind. After a 3-2 loss to East Grand Forks in the Class 1A state quarterfinals on Wednesday, March 6 at the Xcel Energy Center, Lourdes will again be in the consolation bracket. But that does not wash out what Samuelson and Funk have done in their careers.
Samuelson (98-123—221) and Funk (111-104—215) will down as the top two goal scorers in school history.
Funk scored a goal and recorded an assist against East Grand Forks while his linemate of four years, Samuelson, added two assists.
“The last four years, obviously growing up you always want to play in the tournament,” Samuelson said. “Getting to do it freshman year, it was awesome. Getting to do it the next three years was more than I could ever ask for. It's a privilege to play in the state tournament.
"Individual success just came from both of us. The 20 guys we had each year contributed to (our success). It wasn't just us two. It was those guys getting the pucks out for us and it was all that that made these four years the best four years I could ask for.”
“Jason and me have had the chemistry here for the last few years,” Funk added. “And you cannot just say its just us. The whole team rally behind us a lot and trusts us. That’s where it come from. It’s the leaders we’ve had in the past and it just comes from that.”
Rochester Lourdes was down 3-0 heading into the third period of Wednesday's quarterfinal, but mounted a comeback near the midpoint of the final period that made the final minute interesting.
It was Funk and Samuelson that began that spark.
“We’ve had these two up here and we’ve had them for four years,” Lourdes' coach Josh Spaniol said. “They bring a lot to the team and we are really going to miss them.”
-- Justin Magill, MN Hockey Hub staff
St. Thomas Academy's Tom Novak (15) keeps his head about him. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
There’s not a lot of love for St. Thomas Academy at the state tournament to begin with, and, after putting a 12-0 beat down on St. Cloud Apollo on Wednesday night, the Cadets aren’t likely to gain any allies.
But STA isn’t necessarily proud of what transpired.
“We really respect [St. Cloud Apollo],” said coach Tom Vannelli. “You still want to play hard and win. [The result] just happened. I don’t know. I guess it’s not comfortable for either team.”
The Cadets held a 34-0 advantage in shots at one point, and didn’t allow the Eagles to get a shot on goal until less than 90 seconds were remaining in the second period.
Everyone in the building let out a loud Bronx cheer when Apollo finally got its first puck on net, including the St. Thomas Academy students.
For the players clad in blue and white, it was a relief when the Eagles erased the zero in the shot category.
“We never wish for a team to not get a shot on goal,” said blue-liner Jack Dougherty. “It’s the state tournament. We want everyone to have fun and you always wish a good game. I think that’s kind of what we were thinking.”
That might be a hard comment for the anti-STA crowd to swallow. Yells of “move up” will only get louder after Wednesday’s game, and it will reach its crescendo on Saturday afternoon if the Cadets are the small-school champions for the third year in a row.
But STA is moving up next year, and they can’t change the fact that they are playing for the Class 1A title this season.
That’s what the Cadets are focused on.
“We had a team meeting at the beginning of the season and all of us had a common goal,” Dougherty said. “That was to win a state championship. That’s not going to change, no matter what happens next year.”
Apollo on the rise?
For the first time since 1984, St. Cloud Apollo made the trip to the state tournament.
The experience will count, even if the memories of their first game will be negative ones.
“For us, this is a good experience,” said coach Pete Mantanich, who has led the Eagles to 18 wins at this point after losing 15 seniors from last year’s squad. “It’s a good experience for all our kids. They’re a great group of kids, they work extremely hard and love the game.”
With the influx of youth in the St. Cloud Apollo lineup, there’s no reason why the Eagles can’t make the trek down interstate 94 again next winter.
Cadets in uniform on the ice vs. Cadets in uniform in the stands
When the opening faceoff took place, St. Thomas Academy students revved up a STA quarterfinal game tradition – the instant “this one’s over” chant.
The players are thankful for the support and have given the students the right to be confident in the product on the ice, but that doesn’t mean they listen to what’s being said.
“We know they’re here to have fun, too,” forward Alex Johnson said. “I think we mostly try and tune that stuff out. Obviously we don’t think of that as ‘this one’s already over’ because it’s a 0-0 game and it’s far from over. So we don’t try and play with that. They’re just here to have fun, so we kind of let it go by.”
-- Zack Friedli, MN Hockey Hub staff