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.
St. Paul Academy’s newbie status at the state Class 1A tournament comes with a giant asterisk.
The Spartans have fielded hockey teams dating back to the early 1900s, and hold the distinction of being the last team to win the Minnesota Independent School High School Tournament before that event was discontinued.
So while Wednesday night’s quarterfinal matchup against St. Cloud Cathedral marks the Spartans’ first appearance in a Minnesota State High School League state tournament, it was hardly their first run at a state title.
St. Paul Academy was a bona fide state power back before the MSHSL sponsored its first state tournament to conclude the 1944-45 season. The Spartans, who featured the likes of former University of Minnesota star and current St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Tom Vannelli, were championship-caliber still during spurts between 1945 and the 1974-75 season, when private schools were first allowed to play in the MSHSL state tournament.
According to research provided by longtime state hockey historian Craig Roberts, the Cadets won the Minnesota Prep School state tournament in 1961 and 1962. As mentioned earlier, they also won the won the last state Independent school tournament in 1974.
St. Paul Academy also is listed as having won state titles in 1941 and 1942, which technically is true. However, Roberts’ research shows those as “mythical” championships at a time when there was no true state tournament and several teams were laying claim to being state champions.
“They actually won (Northeast Academy championships) in 1941, 1942 and 1943,” Roberts said. “But those weren't tournaments, they were games against specific schools such as Shattuck and Blake and SPA. It eventually became the origin of the (Minnesota Independent School High School Tournament), which started in 1951.”
The Spartans also were state runner-up in the Minnesota Prep School Tournament in 1953 and 1963. Success in the MSHSL tournament has been long in coming. Dating back to the 1974-75 season, St. Paul Academy hadn’t reached a section championship game until last year, when it lost to Mahtomedi. Before that, the Spartans had last reached the section semifinals in the 2001-02 season.
“The improvement we’ve had over the last four years has actually been pretty incredible,” first-year coach Matt Funk, a former Spartans assistant for three years said about the programs’ return to prominence. “Our first year we lost in the quarterfinals. Our second year we lost in the semifinals. Last year we lost in the section championship.”
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