If not for a pair of state titles in the intervening years, Hermantown’s overtime defeat in the 2020 Class A boys hockey championship game would have seemed like a case of Groundhog Day considering the team’s six consecutive runner-up finishes from the previous decade.
The Hawks again epitomized heartbreak on the Xcel Energy Center ice last March with their 3-2 loss to Mahtomedi.
But the pain suffered by the players and coaches that day in St. Paul has translated into a group with a fire burning to add to state titles won in 2007, 2016 and 2017.
“Obviously losing in overtime to end your season in the state championship game was disappointing, but it made this senior group very hungry at the same time,” Hermantown coach Pat Andrews said. “We try not to focus on the past, but we try to learn from it and use it as motivation.”
The Hawks needed to wait an extra month-and-a-half to return to the ice this winter due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing a pause in all youth athletics. Many of the players needed to find alternative methods before organized practices were allowed to resume Jan. 4.
“It’s been a long time in the making,” senior forward Aaron Pionk said last week. “We have been pretty anxious to get out there. We’ve been on the outdoor ice — the lakes and the ponds — as much as we can so you can tell that we can’t wait to get that first game going on (Thursday).”
Pionk scored with 22 seconds remaining in the third period to send last year’s state title game into overtime. That joyous moment was short-lived, as Mahtomedi’s Colin Hagstrom netted the game-winner 2:44 into the extra session.
Pionk says that memory stuck with the Hawks well into the offseason.
“We’ve all had that grudge, especially some of the guys who were playing in the summer against some of those Mahtomedi guys,” he said. “We’re going to take practice day-by-day and, hopefully, get back to that same spot.”
Still, Hermantown has enough veteran players to know they can’t hang on to those bad memories forever. When the puck drops Thursday night against Lake Superior Conference rival Superior, all focus will be on a shortened 2021 season.
“This summer we looked back and learned everything we could from that experience,” senior defenseman Joey Pierce said of the team’s seventh runner-up finish in 11 seasons. “But now it’s in the rearview mirror and we’re just focused on what’s going to happen this year.”
Pierce is one of the reasons why Hermantown is expected to contend again. The Minnesota Duluth signee spurned junior hockey for a chance at bringing home first-place hardware from the state tournament.
He will be taking over leadership reins from Blake Biondi, the Minnesota Duluth freshman who won the Mr. Hockey and News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year awards after totaling 47 goals and 95 points last season.
The Minnesota State High School League has not definitively set a schedule or site for the state tournament, but did set aside dates for section playoffs and a subsequent state tournament to be played weeks after its normal time in early March.
No matter when and where a tournament will be held, the Hawks expect to be there.
“We’re just excited to be here today and we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but our goal definitely is the same and we still want a state championship,” Pierce said.
Andrews isn’t about to dissuade his players from that notion, but knows nothing is given in this year of uncertainty.
“Our goal since day one of the summer is to win a state championship,” Andrews said. “Every year we have the same end goals — we want to win the conference, win the section and win state. Those goals don’t change, but to get there is a long road so we’ve been focusing a lot on the pursuit together and enjoying the journey to get there.”