David La Vaque has covered all but one state hockey tournament game since 2009 and has worked as a Star Tribune high school sports reporter since 2004. His favorite tournament experiences include cheering for alma mater St. Paul Johnson in 1991 and staying for most of the Apple Valley/Duluth East marathon semifinal game in 1996. Loren Nelson has covered every state tournament since 2009 as the national media editor for Sport Ngin. He attended many, many other Tourney games as a high schooler from the far northern reaches of Minnesota making the annual pilgrimage south to the old St. Paul Civic Center in the 1980s.
Whether it was Roseau in 2007 or Warroad in 1969, tiny northern schools with great talent and huge hearts who challenged the larger metro-area programs and won have long sparked the imagination of state tournament crowds.
But what happens when David refuses to pick up the slingshot?
Hermantown, a suburb of Duluth, won a Class 1A title in 2007. The Hawks went on to place second in the past five small-school state tournaments, during which time coach Bruce Plante spat bitterly about metro-area private schools – looking at you, St. Thomas Academy – and their unfair advantage against out-state schools.
A few years ago, the wise-cracking, straight-shooting Plante and his band of talented players could have emerged as tournament darlings. Instead, the Hawks are drawing scorn for staying in a class they appear, from a competitive standpoint, to have outgrown.
Sports classification by the Minnesota State High School League is enrollment based. Teams have the option to opt-up a class on a two-year cycle to test themselves against bigger schools and tougher competition. St. Thomas Academy did so the past two years. Duluth Marshall will make the jump beginning next season.
And Hermantown? Plante took the question head-on after Wednesday’s quarterfinal:
“No, we’re not going up to double A. So far it’s been up to me and what we do with our hockey program – our amateur people. We’ve been talking about it this winter a little bit but we only had 37 guys come out for our team this year. We kept 35. So we’re a little thin sometimes to be a double A team.
“Right now we’re on a good roll; we’ve had some really good players. We certainly could compete with [2A programs] right now but it’s not a thing that we can probably do every year. So we’re going to stay right where we’re at. I think it’s a good place for us to be.
“When you’re a good team, like we are, people want you to move up. I don’t know if that’s fair, either, because every good team – East Grand [Forks] should move up, Breck should move up. Everybody should move up if they a good team a few years in a row. We happen to be one of better teams right now in single A and we’re proud of that and I think we’re going to stay right there. That’s probably where we fit the best.
“We only have 600 kids in our school, so we’re small. Right now we’re fortunate to have a number of good players. In Hermantown, every other player has to be a good player to be a varsity player. It’s not the same odds Edina has, or Wayzata or any of these teams that have 12 bantam teams. We only have two [three]. So this is a good place for us."