State Tournament Reflection 2016

Sixteen games across four days, gone in a blur and ending in a daze: another Tourney has come and gone, and as always, I’ll put fingers to keys to find what few words have not yet been said. By early March my mind is all too ready for a trip to some exotic locale, but the vacation I really need takes me just a few miles east. We make our yearly pilgrimage to the spectacle in St. Paul, a dip into tradition that somehow offers a compelling new drama, night after night.

For a second straight year, a first-time champion hoisted a trophy. Wayzata proved all those old clichés about depth and defense true, as they locked down in the first two rounds and rediscovered their game with their backs to the wall in the final. The winning goal came from pure grinding hockey, a steady offensive zone cycle that wore down Eden Prairie, forced a turnover, and a set up a shot from the point. Their hard-nosed effort warmed this Northern boy’s heart, and the relentless push was a vindication for coach Pat O’Leary, who has made an art of overpowering hockey and finally brought his crew along, rolling his four lines right down to the final horn.

The lockdown Trojans were never a given, as their midseason stumbles inspired a sea of skeptics. But by the end Alex Schilling pounced on every loose puck while Hank Sorensen hammered all in sight, and they just managed to find a healthy channel for that simmering fire. They stole the headlines from Casey Mittelstadt, the Eden Prairie golden boy who nearly willed a team to a title. Casey’s dazzling show throughout puts him in elite company, his performance comparable to Besse or Rau in recent years. But he saved his most genuine moments for after the game, pulling himself from tears to speak with poise about his loss; even in defeat, he quickly righted any wrongs, and began to learn the burdens of stardom that will likely follow him for years. His Eagles fell short in the title game for the first time, but gave every last ounce for their teammates and their inspiration behind the bench, Steve Ollinger.

Wayzata’s physical play was far from the only throwback in a Tourney field devoid of its usual suspects. The Halloween Machine from Grand Rapids made its way south for the first time since 2007, and the old northern giants flashed some of their nostalgic magic on their way to a third-place berth. They were no match for Middelstadt, but for a spurt in the second period on Friday night they had all of 218 Territory rising in unison, as the band cranked out one of its impeccably timed Olés and the west end of the arena, painted in orange, bounced in unison. United with the mass of Wayzata yellow on Saturday afternoon, Grand Rapids pulled off one last stirring comeback to bring home another trophy for 7AA.

The Burnsville black and gold also made its way back to St. Paul for only the second time in twenty years, and for one period gave us a hint of past glory. Thief River Falls, another claimant to dynasty in a more distant age, cruised to small-school third place behind a pair of genuine stars. Anoka’s Tornadoes shocked the world by spinning their way back to the Tourney, and the Lumberjacks from Bemidji axed their way through the consolation bracket. Their effort against Rapids gave us the Tourney’s only overtime affair, and its one true thriller before Saturday night. All four northern squads went home with at least two wins and a trophy in tow.

But even as the old guard kept up its proud legacy, newer faces showed the changing tides in hockey and beyond. As the suburbs grow, so goes the high school hockey success, and Farmington and Stillwater gave us glimpses of the future with their tight opening game. There is a learning curve for these teams, as there is for the southerners who got shellacked on the first day of Class A, but whole towns turned out anyway, and who can forget Mankato West’s display on that first skate up to the line? The flow poured forth from buckets left and right, its perfection driving me to self-consciously run a hand through my own mediocre mane at the intermission.

There were no surprises in Class A this year: everything went according to seed, up and down the bracket. But there was sheer, sweet relief, as Hermantown finally threw off a burden worthy of Buffalo and brought a title back to northeast. The Hawks left no doubts, dominating each and every game, and while they’re no longer the scrappy upstart story they were a few years ago, they are out of a long shadow and ready to claim a higher mantel. One hopes they embrace the challenges that may come their way next, and whatever Bruce Plante decides for the future, he has now earned himself a less anxious summer on his lake.

With no Duluth East in the field, I thought it might be a more relaxed Tourney for me, but the infectious nerves still swept through on Saturday night as the Trojans ran the clock down. That emotion never gets old, nor does this yearly dive back in to meet friends old and new, to revisit those Tournament institutions along Seventh Street or opposite Rice Park. I can even enjoy a momentary foray into that cloud of adolescent male hormones that hangs over the upper deck of the X, though before long I’ll beat my hasty retreat back to the land of free popcorn up in the press box. It’s a reminder of who we are and where we come from, even if our immediate alma maters may not have made this trip this year. It’s all timeless, and we can all go back, if only for a little while.

It’s all over now, headed into history books and video vaults and the realm of memory. Memory and that sense of rightness, emblazoned in the mind’s eye, a home where it will stay longer than in any pictures or words that try to capture it. An early spring is already melting away any icy dreams, but there’s work to be done, and it won’t be long before we begin the cycle anew. Thanks, boys, for another memorable year.

-Karl Schuettler

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Final 2016 AA Rankings

One last ceremonial set of rankings, with heavy emphasis on playoff performance:

1. WAYZATA

-The Trojans are a testament to that old maxim: defense wins championships. They locked down over the second half of the season, and while they sometimes teetered on the edge, there was never any doubt that the talent was there. In the end, they all bought in, and their depth wore down the rest of the state as they marched to a first ever title. It’s a well-earned crown for the Trojans.

2. Eden Prairie

-After an up-and-down regular season, the Eagles turned it on in the playoffs, and the Casey Mittelstadt show nearly became the headline of the Tourney. But in the end, they were just a little too vulnerable in back, and they were worn down by a deeper, more defensive squad. It’s a bitter end for a loaded team, but we’ll be seeing a lot more of some of these players long beyond high school.

3. Grand Rapids

-It was a banner year for the Thunderhawks, who finally broke back through in 7AA, and went home with 3rd place honors at State. It was their most talented team in many years, and they now have a chance to continue this quality run. One of the state’s most storied programs renewed its tradition in dramatic fashion.

4. Stillwater

-The Ponies dominated the east metro and had a breakthrough year by making their way to the state semifinals as a high seed. The weak schedule may have been an issue when they finally collided with other deep, talented teams that could wear them down, but they have plenty of quality in their own right. If everyone comes back, they’ll be among the favorites again next season.

5. Bemidji

-Lost a heartbreaker to Grand Rapids at State, but followed it up with a solid run through the consolation bracket. This Lumberjack group has had an impressive run, with two straight Tourney berths and a 25-win season this year.

6. Benilde-St. Margaret’s

-A dream season went sour in the section semis for the Red Knights, as an undefeated run came to a very unexpected end. Still, they performed far better than most would have guessed, and one bad loss doesn’t invalidate that.

7. Minnetonka

-The Skippers were as good as anyone over the second half of the season, but it all came crumbling down against Prior Lake in the 2AA semifinals. With a fairly young core and a top-flight bantam team coming up, they should be back with a vengeance next season.

8. Farmington

-Proved their worth with three wins over Lakeville North and a first AA Tourney berth. They looked respectable at State, too. They’ll be back in the not-so-distant future.

9. Lakeville North

-The Panthers looked like one of the teams to beat in the state, but never could figure out Farmington, and were left watching the Tourney from home for the first time since 2012. Their weakness in back came back to haunt them at the worst possible time.

10. Burnsville

-An old Tourney standby brought back the glory days as they roughed up St. Thomas Academy to claim a 3AA crown. They went on a very strong run near the end, and while they were two-and-out at State, it was still a memorable run.

11. Blaine

-The Tufte and Notermann show put up some big numbers all year, but their lack of depth was a concern all season long, and it came back to bite them against Maple Grove in sections. They were a very senior-heavy team, so it may be another year or two before they’re back in the picture.

12. Prior Lake

-The Lakers took a step forward for their program with a win over Minnetonka, and gave Eden Prairie a decent game in the final as well. While they’ll miss a number of departing seniors, the future does look pretty bright here.

13. Holy Family

-The Fire had some decent moments this season, especially around Christmas, and gave Eden Prairie a very good fight in their semifinal. Still, they have yet to break through into a final, and that Wright County portion of their schedule doesn’t do them any favors.

14. Duluth East

-The Hounds had an up-and-down season, but were playing some of their better hockey at the end when they rolled past Elk River and pushed Grand Rapids to the brink before falling.

15. Edina

-The Hornets had a rebuilding year, missing the Tourney for the first time since 2006. They stayed a step behind the top teams from start to finish, but are primed to return to normal next year.

Honorable Mention

Anoka

-The Tornadoes busted through to become this season’s surprise Tourney entrant. They had a streaky season and didn’t do much at State, but did upset Centennial and put away Maple Grove to claim a crown few would have expected.

St. Thomas Academy

-The Cadets had a fairly strong year with a young team, though they ran into a Burnsville buzzsaw in the 3AA final. They should be the clear favorite in the section next year.

Hill-Murray

-The Pioneers had one of their weaker regular seasons, but still managed to give Stillwater all they could handle in the 4AA final.

Elk River

-Did somewhat better than expected in the regular season with a young team, but beating Duluth East in sections apparently remains too much to ask.

Centennial

-Like Elk River, had a pretty strong year, but got upended by Anoka in sections.

***

As always, I have to offer up a host of thank yous: to Doug at FollowThePuck, to my brothers in arms on the weekly Cold Omaha podcast, to everyone who puts games up online so that we can watch or listen from home (particular thanks to Pete Waggoner, Bart Archer, and Zach Halvorson for the on-air call-outs and guest appearances), my press box friends at the Tourney (Tim, Dave, and Dave…thanks for the candy)…I could go on and on. Basically, thanks to anyone who puts in the effort to promote high school hockey and carry on this tradition. And, of course, thanks to my loyal readers for all their comments and nitpicking over the course of the season…your feedback makes it much more fun than it would be if I just talked at an empty room.

I’ll see you again in earnest in another nine months, though I’ll certainly be around as the summer months go by. The annual reflection essay should be along sometime in the next 48 hours as well.

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Keegan Karki of St. Cloud Cathedral

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