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Prep boys hockey: Hawks follow their leader Watkins to state

Hermantown's Tyler Watkins (18) controls the puck against Greenway during the Section 7A championship game at Amsoil Arena last Wednesday. )Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

PREP BOYS HOCKEY / CLASS A STATE TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

All season long, Hermantown boys hockey coach Patrick Andrews has raved about his senior captain, Tyler Watkins.

Not only was Watkins consistently the best player on the ice, Andrews said last month, but he was everything a first-year coach assuming control of a high-profile program could ask for in a leader. The veteran forward was indoctrinated into the Hermantown Way starting as a sophomore, when guys like Wyatt Aamodt and Cole Koepke carried the Hawks across the Class A finish line, snapping a string of six consecutive runner-up results.

Last year, it was Ryan Sandelin and Dylan Samberg steering the ship to a championship repeat. This winter, it was Watkins' turn, along with fellow seniors Jacob Herter and Trent Madill, to stare down the sky-high expectations that follow Hermantown everywhere and guide this team back to St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center.

They delivered in last week's stirring Section 7A final against Greenway. It started on a dazzling individual effort from Herter, who took the puck in the Hawks' end late in double overtime, skated through the neutral zone and split a pair of Raiders defenders with a wrist shot that goalie Ville Hyttinen kicked away. Herter then tracked his rebound to the side boards, corralled it and fired a shot out front, where Watkins performed a decidedly captain-like task, tipping the game-winner to the back of the net.

"That guy scores more goals than anybody I know, so if you can get it on Tyler's stick, most of the time there's going to be a scoring opportunity," said Herter, who had four assists in the 5-4 triumph.

Watkins said he was simply in the right place at the right time, and that Herter "made the whole play happen."

"Anyone could have put that goal in," Watkins said. "I was just fortunate enough that the puck found my stick."

How gassed were the Hawks after more than 75 minutes of back-and-forth hockey?

"Right after it went in, I actually fell flat on my face," Herter said. "(My legs) just gave out right underneath me."

It was Watkins' 25th goal of the season and the 59th of his career. Two of them came in the 2017 state title game against Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake, including the equalizer deep into the third period that allowed Hermantown to defeat the Moose in double OT.

The teams meet in a rematch at 6 p.m. today at Xcel in a Class A quarterfinal.

Big goals have become the norm for Watkins. He had six in the section playoffs last month, plus six assists. If the Hawks were going to survive against Greenway, which led 3-1 until 11:25 remained in regulation, when Watkins jump-started the comeback via his first tally of the night, chances were good their captain would be the hero.

Andrews said it couldn't have happened to a better person, who has done a "great job of supporting his guys, bringing the young guys along, bringing everybody in."

"For him to be able to get that game-winning goal, not only was it great for us, but I just thought it was really good for him to get rewarded for doing all the right things on the ice and being the great kid that he is," Andrews said.

Hermantown heads into its ninth consecutive state tournament today. The previous eight appearances have ended on Championship Saturday — six losses followed by two victories. The Hawks know this is precisely where so many people expect them to be, but "you can't put too much pressure on yourself because it kind of takes away from the game a little bit," defenseman Darian Gotz said.

Watkins, closing in on the end of his prep career and getting ready to pass the baton to the next group of leaders, agreed.

"I wouldn't say it's pressure, but just a mindset you need to have," he said. "You realize there are expectations here at Hermantown and it's your job to carry that on and pass that on to the younger guys, get the juniors ready to lead next year and the sophomores (accustomed) to the tradition."

HERMANTOWN (20-6-2) VS. MONTICELLO/MAPLE LAKE (19-7-2)

What: Class A state tournament quarterfinal

When: 6 p.m.

Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul

TV: WDIO Ch. 10

Radio: WKLK-FM 96.5/KJOQ-AM 1490/KJOQ-FM 100.9