Feisty best described Hermantown boys’ hockey coach Bruce Plante’s demeanor at the past four Class 1A state tournaments.
Unable to secure championship games victories against metro area schools Breck and St. Thomas Academy, Plante opined programs drawing from a larger enrollment area don’t belong with smaller outstate schools. He even declared his program “public school state champions.”
He got his wish. Three-time defending Class 1A champion St. Thomas Academy opted up to Class 2A and Breck lost in the section playoffs.
That leaves No. 2 Hermantown as a favorite to reach a fifth consecutive championship game, something no team has done since International Falls from 1962-66, and capture its first title since 2007.
The skate is on the other foot, and Plante knows it.
“It’s a little different deal for us this year for sure,” he said. “We’ve always come here as kind of the underdog to St. Thomas Academy or Breck or whatever team was hot that year. We’ve always come in knowing that was a game we’d really have to be up for to get to. This year it’s a little different. People are talking about us more as a lead team.
“I could feel the difference. I don’t know about the kids.”
Hawks junior forward Nate Pionk said increased pressure is “obviously there. But our coaches expect us to go out there and play our game.”
It took time for the Hawks to take flight in Wednesday’s 6-3 quarterfinal victory against tournament newcomer Luverne. A tentative first period was followed by a second period in which the Hawks abandoned their “aggressive, attacking, in-your-face kind of game” that Plante said he has come to expect.
But the program, he added, has transformed questionable first-round performances into gold.
“The year we won it in 2007, we really fought it the first game,” Plante said. “I’d never seen our team play like that at that time. Then the next two games we played great. So I don’t put a whole lot of stock in it. Once they get through it once, I think they’ll be good to go.”
New Prague, Hermantown’s opponent in Friday’s semifinal, also is enjoying its first tournament experience. The Trojans fell to Hermantown 7-3 in late January, but coach Chris Lonke hopes to make that work against the Hawks in the rematch.
“They start every season expecting to be in the state championship game,” Lonke said. “We’re going to expect to do very well and we’re going to play very hard, but yeah, we want to make them feel that pressure, there’s no doubt, with our energy and our team game.”