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Louie St. George column: End the option of opting up

About halfway through its string of eight consecutive Class A championship game appearances, popular opinion turned on the Hermantown boys hockey team.

Breck foiled the Hawks in 2010 before passing the baton to fellow private school St. Thomas Academy, which ensured Hermantown’s only title the next three years was the one former coach Bruce Plante colorfully concocted — “public school champions.” The Hawks would go on to reach the next four finals. They lost to fellow public school East Grand Forks in 2014 and ’15, then turned the 2016 postseason into a prolonged and drama-free coronation, before successfully defending their crown the next March.

By then, the Hawks had morphed from upstart and outstate darlings into public enemy No. 1, the New York Yankees of small-school high school hockey in Minnesota. Why was Hermantown, the critics crowed, still competing in Class A? The Hawks opened 2015-16 by skating past Wayzata, which, three months later at the state tournament, sat atop Class AA. Last season, they did it again, knocking off eventual double-A winner Grand Rapids.

They finished third at their ninth straight state tournament two weeks ago.

Clearly, the Hawks have outgrown the smaller classification, or so the logic goes.

But what if the detractors — and, sometimes, attackers, especially when the mud is being slung from a keyboard — have it all wrong? What if Hermantown, school enrollment 629, is exactly where it belongs? Sure, the Hawks are still the bullies of Class A, their recent third-place showing notwithstanding. And before they fell to Alexandria in the state semifinals, their last loss to a Class A opponent was against East Grand Forks on Championship Saturday in 2015 at Xcel Energy Center.

Given the current climate, it’s hard to fashion an argument for Hermantown staying put. Patrick Andrews, who recently completed his first season as head coach, has said an opt-up could come in 2019. But there’s a better solution, and it involves the Hawks doing nothing.

Instead, the Minnesota State High School League should do away with opt-ups altogether. If you’re a Class A school, that’s where your hockey team plays. The likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Roseau, Duluth Marshall, St. Thomas Academy, Hill-Murray, etc., wouldn’t have a choice, however commendable their desire to take on the big boys is. They’re all under the cutoff of 1,245 students, so they’d all come back down.

(Side note: Getting through Section 7A would be a nightmare.)

Imagine what such a policy would do for the state tournament. Fans already fill Xcel for the Class AA games. But for the others, it’s half- or two-thirds empty. The MSHSL could change that, while immediately making Class A more competitive and thus more intriguing.

It no longer would have to be second fiddle, an undercard for the main event.

The four semifinals on Friday might include, say, Roseau vs. St. Thomas Academy and Grand Rapids vs. Hermantown (assuming the Hawks returned to Section 5A) in Class A, followed by Duluth East vs. Edina and Moorhead vs. Eden Prairie in Class AA. Or maybe the small-school semis would be CEC vs. Hill-Murray and Bemidji vs. Benilde-St. Margaret’s. Or Duluth Marshall-Hermantown and Warroad-Holy Family Catholic.

You get the idea.

Whatever the combination, attendance — and statewide interest — would skyrocket. Let’s face it, much of Class A has become watered-down. There are anomalies, of course. The past two state tournaments have been ridiculously competitive, one thriller after another. But typically there are one or two favorites that are on a different level than the rest of the field.

Part of that is because, too often, when a team sustains success, it is pressured to move up. Benilde-St. Margaret’s was. St. Thomas Academy was during its three-peat. East Grand Forks was when it went back-to-back (the Green Wave didn’t budge, however). Hermantown was, and still is.

If that continues, though, who will be left?

This is not to suggest that the state tournament needs fixing. It does not. But it would make Class A more compelling, start to finish.