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Boys’ Class 1A Preseason Rankings

Hermantown resumes elusive title chase at the top

Hermantown’s Jesse Jacques celebrates with teammates after his second-period goal which turned out to be the difference in the Hawks’ 2-0 Class 1A state semifinal win over St. Cloud Apollo on Friday March 6, 2015 at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

Hermantown resumes elusive title chase at the top

Class 1A rankings for Nov. 18, 2015

As the Minnesota high school boys’ hockey begins this weekend, the initial Class 1A ranking is an interesting mix of perennially strong programs and rising party crashers. At the top is six-time state runner-up Hermantown, followed closely by two of the programs that have caused the Hawks’ recent heartbreak (No. 2 Breck and No. 4 East Grand Forks), themselves separated by relative newcomer St. Paul Academy at No. 3.

While it’s historically known which programs tend to succeed from year-to-year and which teams return a strong core of players, the missing link is how the new players blend in and how the returning players improve. Those questions will begin to be answered as games begin Thursday, Nov. 19.

1. Hermantown (27-3-1 last season)

Last week: none.

This week: none.

For the seventh straight season, Hermantown finds itself in the upper echelon of the Class 1A rankings. But this time coach Bruce Plante and the Hawks hope that preseason steam results in a state title. The Hawks are 0-for-6 the previous six years, falling in the state final each time. Hermantown earns this ranking based on its strong core of veterans in goal (All-State senior Luke Olson), on the blue line (Wyatt Aamodt and Eric Gotz), and up front (high-scoring Cole Koepke and Jesse Jacques, along with Ryan Sandelin, son of University of Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin). The Hawks don’t open up their schedule until next weekend, but then run the gauntlet of four straight Class 2A programs, starting with Wayzata. The Hawks play 11 games against Class 2A teams this winter, so they’ll be plenty battle tested.

2. Breck (21-9-1)

Last week: none.

This week: at Delano (11/24)

If not for Hermantown’s deep returning lineup, Breck would be considered the favorite in Class 1A. The Mustangs also return plenty of talent across the board, but must replace Frank Brimsek Award finalist Stephen Headrick in goal. Whoever steps up in net in the preseason will get help as coach Les Larson brings back his top five returning defensemen, anchored by junior Dalton Weigel, and seven forwards who had at least nine goals a year ago, led by 25-goal scorer Chase Ellingson. The Mustangs kick off their season with an important game at Delano, which could be the Mustangs’ chief competition in the Section 2A race.

3. St. Paul Academy (22-5-0)

Last week: none.

This week: at Owatonna (11/21)

Cracking into the bluebloods at the top of the Class 1A rankings is St. Paul Academy, which surged to 22 victories a year ago with a young lineup. There was a shakeup at the top late last season, as Matt Funk took over when coach Bill Owens abruptly stepped down. Now with an offseason to work with the Spartans’ talented youngsters, expect Funk to lead them to another 20-win season. Only two of the Spartans eight leading returning scorers are seniors, and starting goaltender Andy Beran is just a sophomore. Three of SPA’s returners earned a spot on national camp rosters over the summer (Beran, junior Matt Dahlseide, and sophomore Dev McCabe). Both Dahlseide and McCabe scored at least 50 points last winter.

4. East Grand Forks (26-4-0)

Last week: none.

This week: vs. Park Rapids (11/24)

The two-time defending Class 1A champions slide into the fourth spot, as there was plenty of change in the offseason at East Grand Forks. Coach Tyler Palmiscno resigned to spend more time with his family, but his replacement (Scott Koberinski) is another former University of North Dakota player with local ties. The Green Wave also graduated leading scorer Dixon Bowen and netminder Josh Weber, who backstopped both state title runs. The leadership mantle now falls to senior power forward Tanner Tweten and shifty senior Grant Loven, who tallied a hat trick in the Green Wave’s state semifinal victory over Mahtomedi.

5. Mahtomedi (26-3-2)

Last week: none.

This week: at Roseville (11/24)

Despite losing leading scorer Jack Becker to juniors, Mahtomedi returns much of the roster that paced it to the Class 1A third-place trophy last March. The Zephyrs bring back 12 letter winners, including senior goaltender Will Swanson, who won all 26 games in net. Becker’s 30 goals will need to be replaced, but four returning Zephyrs scored between 13 and 19 goals (Jack Heinsch, Jared Fladebo, Tim Kuivinen, and Joe Forciea) and Andrew Kangas added 25 assists. Coach Jeff Poeschl has a senior-laden team ready to make another run at a title after being upset by third-seeded East Grand Forks in last year’s state semifinals.

6. St. Cloud Apollo (23-6-2)

Last week: none.

This week: at Bemidji (11/20)

Apollo made a big impression in last year’s state tournament, playing a shutdown defensive style that resulted in just six goals against in three games against three of the top four seeds (No. 1 Hermantown, No. 2 Mahtomedi, and No. 4 Breck) in the tournament. Expect to see a similar effort from coach Pete Matanich’s squad, which is willing to “give up the body” in blocking shots at a record pace. Senior goaltender Nick Althaus is in his fourth year as a starter and is a calm and steady influence. Defensemen Tanner Breidenbach and Brandon Baker set the tone for the rugged Eagles, who enjoyed an 18-game stretch from Dec. 20 to Feb. 10 last year in which they allowed no more than two goals in any game and posted six shutouts.

7. Delano (23-5-0)

Last week: none.

This week: vs. Blake (11/20), vs. Breck (11/24)

It’ll be determined in the very first week of the season if Delano is a true contender in Section 2A, as the Tigers host both Blake and Breck, the traditional powerhouses in the section. Last year’s results say the Tigers are on the verge, as they hovered in back end of the top-10 rankings much of the season, won 23 games, and took Breck to double overtime in the section final before succumbing. Coach Gerrit van Bergen will miss the steady play of graduated goaltender Tyler Rizzardi, who made 43 saves in that section final, but he has a strong junior class back, anchored by forwards Ben Meyers, John Keranen, Gabe Halonen, and Brian Halonen, who combined for 57 goals as sophomores.

8. St. Cloud Cathedral (15-12-1)

Last week: none.

This week: at New Prague (11/20)

St. Cloud Cathedral reloaded with a young lineup last year, one that was expected to struggle from time to time adjusting to the varsity game. The Crusaders did, opening with three straight losses to Class 1A rivals and also enduring a five-game skid in late January. Those experiences should help this winter, although the Crusaders do have a new coach in former Luverne general Derrick Brown. Two other key newcomers could be goaltender Keegan Karki, who played for the National Select 15 team and in the Upper Midwest Elite League this offseason, and junior forward Connor Beltz, who transferred to Cathedral after scoring 17 goals for River Lakes last winter. The Crusaders start against New Prague, which beat them 6-2 in last year’s opener.

9. Luverne (23-5-0)

Last week: none.

This week: at Dodge County (11/21)

If it seems there has been more coaching turnover in the top 10 than usual, that’s because there has been. Luverne is one of four teams with new coaches this winter, as Kullen Schroht takes over for Derrick Brown, who is now at St. Cloud Cathedral. The Cardinals do return a high-powered offense that averaged a state-best 8.36 goals per game last winter. Sophomore Jaxon Nelson is considered the best player in the nation at his age level and had 44 goals and 91 points as a freshman. He’s already verbally committed to the University of Minnesota — and he’s not even the highest scorer on his team. Senior Chaz Smedsrud returns after posting 39 goals and 102 points last winter and will just add to his school-record scoring totals. Sophomores Nick Harder and Kasyn Kruse both had 20+ goals and 40+ points as freshmen, as well.

10. Hibbing/Chisholm (15-9-3)

Last week: none.

This week: at Little Falls (11/20), vs. Mound-Westonka (11/21)

The Bluejackets are looking to get back to the promised land for the first time since qualifying for the state tournament in 2011, but it won’t be easy coming out of Section 7A with Hermantown. Coach Todd Versich has the team to do so, returning 15 letter winners from a 15-win team, including junior defenseman Scott Perunovich. The University of Minnesota-Duluth recruit is considered the most dynamic blue liner in the state and racked up a state-best 24 power play assists as a sophomore. Junior Zach DeBoom lives up to his name as a rugged power forward who can score. He is the top returning goal-scorer for the Bluejackets with 22, including nine on the power play. Versich must find a replacement for graduated goaltender Isiah Dilley, however.

Others receiving votes: Thief River Falls, Orono, Fergus Falls, St. Paul Johnson, New Prague, Mankato West, Northfield, New Ulm, South St. Paul

Tim is the award-winning editor/writer/photographer for The Breakdown, the encyclopedia of Minnesota high school sports, which publishes 200+ page season preview guides on volleyball, boys and girls basketball and most notably, boys hockey. Tim's covered and played hockey much of his life, including five years of coverage on the MN Hockey Hub and other outlets. Prior to joining The Breakdown, Tim was a sports reporter for the Record-Journal, a daily newspaper in Meriden, Conn. at which he followed the New Britain Rock Cats (the Twins' Double-A farm team) and UConn women's basketball and football. He has also worked for a weekly newspaper in Buffalo, Minn., at which he won awards for sports photography and as a three-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Best Sports Reporting award among large weekly newspapers. Email Tim at Follow Tim on Twitter @BreakdownUSA.

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