Duluth East players Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster and Ian Mageau were freshmen the last time the Greyhounds finished atop Section 7AA. That was 2015, when East ignored popular opinion - which indicated the talent just wasn’t there for a seventh straight trip to state - and willed its way to the title game, losing 4-1 to Lakeville North.
It may have been three years ago, but as time is prone to do, especially for teenagers, it’s flown by. Suddenly, East’s veterans are nearing the end of the road. They hope the exit ramp comes at Xcel Energy Center, and not in tonight’s section final against upstart Andover.
“It’s not an easy task to get to the state tournament,” defenseman LaMaster said after a 9-1 drubbing of Duluth Marshall in Monday’s semifinals. “It’s such a special thing to do and everyone wants to make it there, so that’s the goal.”
Worth and Mageau are now linemates centered by Ryder Donovan, who played on that 2014-15 squad as an eighth-grader.
Experiencing the kind of success they did as varsity rookies could have provided a false sense of security that this is simply how seasons end at East - collecting a section first-place trophy one Thursday, playing in a Class AA quarterfinal the next.
“I wouldn’t say we took it for granted, but it went by in the blink of an eye,” Worth, a high-scoring forward, said. “Being a freshman, you’re out there, but you’re kind of just chipping pucks all over the place. You’re not really doing what you can do as a senior. It’d be special to make it back this year.”
Unlike like the past two years, it won’t be Grand Rapids standing in the top-seeded Greyhounds’ way in the 7 p.m. game. Instead, the Huskies, relative big-stage newbies, are tasked with slowing a potent East team that has averaged 6.1 goals a game while winning 13 of its past 14. They slipped past Elk River in overtime Monday.
These clubs couldn’t be any more different wherein postseason track records are concerned. No. 2 Andover skates into just its second 7AA final; the other was in 2012, a 4-1 loss to the Greyhounds. Similarly, while the Huskies are seeking their first state berth, East is trying for its 23rd, and is in its 10th consecutive section championship contest.
Combined with the fact that the Greyhounds decimated Andover 9-3 back in December to secure coach Mike Randolph’s 600th career victory, and it’d be easy to look past tonight and start booking hotel rooms in St. Paul. The Greyhounds will hold off.
“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” LaMaster said. “We can’t picture ourselves in St. Paul already. We can use it as motivation, but we still have a game to play against a really good team.”
Staying grounded and in the moment likely is easier given the way East’s past two winters have concluded. In 2016, the Greyhounds led Grand Rapids 5-3 midway through the third period, only to watch their northern rivals score three unanswered goals, each one pushing fans a little closer to the edges of their seats. Alex Adams finished the comeback with 6 seconds remaining in regulation.
A year ago, Grand Rapids’ Micah Miller punctuated another classic by driving home a wrist shot in double overtime. That night, in front of more than 7,000 fans, Worth had a chance to end it late in the third when he took a point-blank shot at Thunderhawks goalie Zach Stejskal, but Stejskal made the save.
Missing out on state is one thing - doing so in excruciating fashion two years in a row is plain cruel.
“Heart-wrenching defeats … 6 seconds left and double overtime,” Randolph said. “That’s really, really tough on coaches and even harder on players. There are a lot of players in there that had to go through that.”
ANDOVER (22-5) VS. DULUTH EAST (22-2-3)
What: Section 7AA championship
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: WDIO Ch. 10
Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1