For years, Bruce Plante has bemoaned the presence of private school juggernauts in the Minnesota Class A high school boys hockey tournament.
The outspoken Hermantown coach went so far as to declare his team the public school state champions before the Hawks took the ice with St. Thomas Academy in the 2012 title game. The Cadets clobbered Hermantown 5-1 in that contest for their second consecutive state championship, and made it a three-peat last winter.
The Hawks were on the wrong end each time, not to mention the 2010 final -- a 2-1 loss to Breck, another private school.
Alas, those two antagonists are nowhere to be found on this year's bracket. The Mustangs
didn't make it, and the Cadets now reside in Class AA.
Right where they belong, according to Plante.
"I think it was about time they moved up -- I thought a little late in coming, actually," Plante said Tuesday, minutes before the Hawks boarded a school bus bound for St. Paul. "They played a double-A schedule, so there was really no reason for them to not move up considering they get players from all over the state and the surrounding states.
"It was like an all-star team -- and we all know that -- so there's no reason for them to play single A."
Hermantown's path to its second state title isn't completely devoid of private schools.
St. Cloud Cathedral and Totino-Grace play each other in tonight's last quarterfinal. The Hawks, though, beat those two squads by a combined 12-1 this season.
Hermantown (22-4-2) is the No. 2 seed, behind East Grand Forks, and opens at 11 a.m. today against unseeded Luverne (27-0-1).
After years of lobbing verbal volleys at the likes of St. Thomas and Breck -- and Benilde-St. Margaret's before them -- the Hawks don't have to worry about either this time around. Expectations, always high for a top-tier outfit like Hermantown, may be even higher this week.
"There's a little bit more pressure," senior winger Scott Wasbotten said. "Everybody expects us to do amazing now that there aren't great private school teams there this year."
"There's always a lot of pressure when you go down to the state tournament," Plante said. "I know the onus is more on us probably."
Compounding the problem is Hermantown's run of four consecutive title-game losses.
The Hawks are tired of being bridesmaids -- they're ready to be a bride.
"You go down there four times and get second, you want to win one," said junior Ryan Kero, who centers Wasbotten and Nate Pionk on the Hawks' red-hot top line.
Hermantown players practiced on their home ice Tuesday for the final time this season. A team lunch followed before they set out for St. Paul.
Rather than loading up a fancy coach bus, the Hawks made the trip south on a no-frills yellow school bus, replete with an equipment trailer in tow.
The reason? Tradition, they said.
It's hard to argue with that tradition, which has the Hawks on the cusp of a state title seemingly every March. This year, they hope to break through for the first time since the 2006-07 team beat Duluth Marshall for the program's first crown.
"We're a young team this year, but we're really comfortable with each other and we all believe in each other," Wasbotten said. "We know that we have the capability to win this tournament, and that's our goal."
The winner of today's game advances to a Friday morning semifinal against either Chisago Lakes Area or New Prague.
Luverne, located in the southwest corner of the state, enters the quarterfinals as the highest-scoring team in Minnesota. The Cardinals' lone hiccup, a midseason tie, came against a Class AA team in St. Michael-Albertville. And while southern teams don't traditionally fare well this time of year, Luverne appears capable of reversing that trend.
"Any team that can go undefeated is obviously good," Pionk said. "You can't take any team lightly, especially at the state tournament."