Small school prep boys hockey preview: New-look Hermantown opens season with No. 1 ranking

Hardly anyone would argue with the preseason hype surrounding Hermantown's boys hockey team. The Hawks have appeared in the past four Class A state championship games, and their longtime nemesis, St. Thomas Academy, made the jump to Class AA.

Hardly anyone would argue with the preseason hype surrounding Hermantown's boys hockey team. The Hawks have appeared in the past four Class A state championship games, and their longtime nemesis, St. Thomas Academy, made the jump to Class AA.

But coach Bruce Plante isn't sure his retooled club is deserving of the No. 1 ranking it will carry into Friday's season opener against Wayzata, which is slotted first in Class AA.

"We're not quite a No. 1 team right now," Plante said before practice Tuesday. "We're a young team. We need some guys to come through from our JV and from our bantam team."

That's especially true considering Hermantown graduated its entire top line of Chris Benson, Travis Koepke and Bo Gronseth, which combined for a team-record 89 goals last season -- and 193 during their prep careers. Furthermore, Minnesota Duluth recruit Neal Pionk left the Hawks to play junior hockey with Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League.

Plante, understandably, was stung by the defenseman's departure.


"I don't like when guys leave high school. I can understand why they go sometimes, but I don't think it's necessary," Plante said, while lauding Pionk and admitting he "has a lot of respect for Neal."

Still, don't bet against the venerable coach restocking his roster with the kind of talent that has turned the Hawks into perennial state title contenders. Even with only "four or five" returners that played regularly a year ago, Hermantown has proven it knows how to withstand such dramatic turnover.

One player that returns is senior goalie Adam Smith, who caught fire at the end of last season while producing a 17-1-1 mark and a 1.60 goals-against average.

Scott Wasbotten and Nate Pionk were double-digit goal-scorers in 2012-13 as the Hawks went 25-5-1 and lost a 5-4 heartbreaker to St. Thomas in the state title game. That contest marked the third straight time Hermantown lost to the Cadets with a championship on the line.

That won't be an issue this year with the private school moving up a class.

"I think it's the right thing for them to do," Plante said. "They play a double-A schedule all year and they've got a double-A team. They've got kids from all over; it's an All-Star team. That's where they should be, that's where those kinds of teams should be -- playing amongst the best."

Wasbotten will play on a top line that features juniors Pionk and Ryan Kero. Because of a thin blue line -- senior Ryan Carlson is the only returning regular -- Zach Kramer drops back from center. Kramer scored one of the Hawks' biggest goals last year, a double-overtime game-winner against Breck in the state tournament semifinals.

Hermantown will find out how well all the pieces fit in Friday's showdown of No. 1 teams, though Plante expects he'll be tinkering with his lineup for weeks to come.


As for that lofty ranking, Plante's players are as nonplussed as their coach.

"It doesn't really matter to us," Wasbotten said. "We're just going to play our best and we'll see what happens."

The Hawks move from Section 5A to the more difficult 7A this year.

Elsewhere in Class A

Duluth Marshall withstood a spate of midseason injuries to win its second consecutive Section 7A title a year ago.

It's not a scenario that Hilltoppers coach Brendan Flaherty wants to replay this winter, though he's not off to a great start in that regard.

One of Flaherty's best players, senior defenseman Kyle Jones, is expected to be out until at least mid-December with a broken arm.

"We just hope we don't have to go through that again," Flaherty said of last year's injury-bug adversity.


Fortunately for the coach, Marshall boasts enviable depth, with 14 returners that played in the 2013 state tournament, where the Hilltoppers bounced back from an opening-round loss to Hermantown to take fifth place.

If the squads meet again in this year's postseason, it likely would be with a state berth on the line in the 7A playoffs.

Scoring should come from Cam McClure, Luke Pavelich, Anthony Miller and Jack Dodd. Alex Murray figures to see the bulk of the playing time between the pipes.

"We have a lot of depth, and we're looking for those primary goal-scorers to emerge," Flaherty, in his 18th season at Marshall, said. "We're looking for some go-to guys."

The Hilltoppers were 18-13 a year ago and edged Duluth Denfeld 3-2 in the section final less than a month after losing 8-3 to the Hunters.

Despite graduating goal-scorers Levi Talarico and Alex Thompson, as well as longtime goalie Zach Thompson, Duluth Denfeld has some weapons as the Hunters look to continue their resurgence. Chief among them: forwards Reid Lemker, Steven Maciver and Tre Opack, and blueliner Nick Thompson.

Denfeld was 19-9 last season and narrowly missed its first state tournament since 1989.

After collecting 54 points (28 goals, 26 assists) as a junior, Luke Small is back for the North Shore Storm. Small is joined by fellow forwards Mills Johnson, Tyler Schramm, Jonah Koehler and Thomas Anderson on a team ripe with playmakers.


The Storm went 14-11-1 last year in their first season as a Two Harbors-Silver Bay co-op. Their season ended via a 6-1 loss to Hibbing-Chisholm in the first round of the 7A playoffs.

Hibbing-Chisholm, which went 14-13 and missed its first 7A finals in 11 years, likely will rely upon forwards Ty Birdsall and Eric Riihinen for its offensive punch this winter.

A down year gives way to renewed hope at Proctor, which limped to a 7-19-1 mark in 2012-13. Christian Ripley was a 30-point (15 goals, 15 assists) producer last season for the Rails, who compete in what could be a wide-open Section 5A.

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