Hockey rivalries overshadow football woes

John Gilbert

Louis Jamernik (27) chips North Dakota's third goal over Matthew Thiessen in the first period of Friday's 4-2 victory against UMD. Photo by John Gilbert.

The UMD men’s and women’s hockey teams both take on huge rivals this weekend, seeking to establish their credibility in their conferences, but the UMD football team came off its greatest performance of the season to land with the thud of disappointment as they were overlooked by the NCAA selection process.

Before getting to the Bulldogs traveling to St. Cloud State’s new NCHC leader for a Friday-Saturday series, and the UMD women taking on arch-rival Minnesota at AMSOIL Arena, we have to examine the combined upper and downer of the UMD football team.

The Bulldogs have worked most of the season to overcome two losses that stained their record, and they were hitting the road for the regular-season finale rated No. 25 to face No. 9 Minnesota State Mankato, and knowing they needed their best performance of the season to join the elite teams in the Northern Sun and have a chance to be invited to then 28-team NCAA Division II playoffs.

The Bulldogs did their part, whipping MSU Mankato 33-21 on the Mavericks field for the first time in coach Curt Wiese’s tenure. Also, Bemidji State, which had inflicted one of those painful losses on UMD, lost to Augustana. That left the top six teams in the NSIC standings as: 1. Augustana 9-1 (10-1 overall); 2 (tie). UMD 8-2 (9-2 overall), MSU-Mankato (8-2 (9-2 overall), and Bemidji State 8-2 (8-2 overall); 5. Wayne State 7-3 (8-3 overall); 6.Minnesota State Moorhead 6-4 (7-4 overall).

The NCAA selection committee picks only 28 schools from the whole country, so taking four NSIC teams would be a stretch. Chances are, three would be the limit, and which Augustana was a cinch, the three-way tie for second entangled UMD, which beat Mankato but lost to Bemidji, Mankato, which lost to UMD but beat Bemidji, and Bemidji, which lost to Mankato but beat UMD.

The choices came down, and the committee picked three — Augustana, Mankato and Bemidji — leaving out UMD. It was a painful decision for the Bulldogs, who had built up to playing their best game in their finale.

Luke Loheit crashed the net to deflect in a Ben Steeves pass to start UMD's rally in the first game.

A large crop of outstanding seniors on offense and defense, led by the brash sophomore quarterback Kyle Walljasper, are rudely finished, and no explanation can change that.

That wasn’t the only major disappointment on the gridiron. Esko, undefeated and rolling in high gear into the state tournament’s AAA category, played Annandale in Brainerd Saturday afternoon, and loaded as they were, the Eskomos’ triggerman on offense and defense was Makoi Perich, a lean, quick and tough running back and safety who could always be counted on to make the big plays that inspired Esko’s full-faceted attack. But Perich left the game in the first quarter, reportedly with a torn oblique muscle, and never returned. Annandale, from Section 5, beat Esko 14-7.

Perich has a bright future, with Division I offers from Minnesota, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Florida State – and who knows how many others? But we in the Northland are deprived of watching one of the most colorful high school football teams in the last decade do its thing in the state tournament.

The UMD men’s hockey team faced one of its biggest rivals last weekend when North Dakota came to AMSOIL Arena. Because UMD coach Scott Sandelin and UND coach Brad Berry both played and coached at North Dakota, their personal rivalry has been tightly battled and almost looked like mirror-image teams playing each other.

This past weekend, however, North Dakota’s Fighting Hawks beat UMD both nights, winning a narrow 4-2 first game with an empty-net clincher before Ludvig Persson shut out the Bulldogs 2-0, in the NCHC opening series. In the first game, UMD started hesitantly, getting only two shots in the first 15 minutes, as North Dakota strode to a 3-0 lead on goals by Jayden Perron, Logan Britt and Louis Jamernik.

The Bulldogs responded in the second period, grabbing their share of the flow, and got a neat power-play goal when sniper Ben Steeves, at the right circle, spotted line mates Quinn Olson and Luke Loheit in front, to the left of the crease. Instead of shooting, Steeves feathered a pass through traffic, and the puck glanced off Olson before Loheit, crashing the net, banged it in.

Anthony Menghini scored with 5:16 left in the third period, off a Joey Pierce feed from the right point, and at 3-2, the scene was set for a wild finish. With goalie Matthew Thiessen pulled for a sixth attacker, the Bulldogs set up in the offensive zone. But the puck popped free, and a Fighting Hawks player had a chance for a breakaway at the empty net. Freshman defenseman Aaron Pionk had no choice but to quickly draw a tripping penalty, and the game turned anticlimactic when Cameron Berg converted a feed from Logan Britt to clinch it 4-2.

Sophomore Cole Spicer's breakaway was stopped in a shower of ice chips by North Dakota goalie Ludvig Persson in his 2-0 shutout.

The next night, UMD played much more forcefully through the first period, but fell behind on a Louis Jamernik power-play goal. This time it was the second period that was UMD’s downfall, as the Bulldogs were outshot 18-4. The goal was a work of art. Jackson Blake, whose father, Jason Blake, used to do magic tricks with the puck for the Fighting Sioux, pulled one off for the Fighting Hawks of the new generation at 3:05 of the second when he skated up the right side, caught a pass from Owen McLaughlin and cut sharply to cross the slot, right to left. As the UMD defenders surrounded him, Blake pulled what looked like a no-look pass straight back to the right circle, where Riese Gaber was closing for a one-timer.

This weekend, UMD heads for St. Cloud, where former UMD player and coach Brett Larson appears to have his St. Cloud State Huskies hitting peak form. The Huskies opened with a 5-4 overtime loss to St. Thomas, then dropped both games of a nonconference series with MSU Mankato, and split a series with surprisingly strong Alaska (Fairbanks). Not a sizzling start, but with Veto Miettinen and Joe Molenaar leading the way, the Huskies opened the NCHC season by sweeping both Miami and Western Michigan.

“It’s going to be another year where there will be no surprises if anybody, one through eight, beats anybody else,” said Larson. “Now we’ve got to be ready for a Duluth team that will be hungry.”

When Shannon Miller started the UMD women’s hockey program, Minnesota had already played two or three seasons. But in their first year, UMD beat the Gophers for the WCHA title, and when Minnesota came back to beat UMD and win an invitational tournament in Boston, the Gophers have insisted that was a national championship — and they count it among the “legitimate” titles Minnesota has won.

Of course, the NCAA started conducting a women’s tournament the following season, and UMD shocked the whole country by winning the first three women’s NCAA championships, among the five that Miller’s teams captured. You can see the banners hanging from the AMSOIL rafters this weekend, because in their 25th season, UMD has never found a more intense rival than the Golden Gophers, who invade for 6 pm and 3 pm games Friday and Saturday.

Big football news in the Twin Cities, of course, revolves around Joshua Dobbs, who has proven to the whole state — and pro or con Kirk Cousins fans — what the team might accomplish with a quick, improvisational quarterback who can run and find receivers at the same time. Beating New Orleans 27-19 was the Vikings fifth straight, and their 6-4 record is stirring thoughts of a possible playoff rush. The Gophers, meanwhile, might have waved to the Vikings as they passed going opposite directions, after Minnesota took its 5-4 record to 2-7 Purdue and absorbed a 49-30 whipping by the Boilermakers.

If you think that one stung, the Gophers this weekend play at Ohio State, and the Buckeyes are aiming to polish their resume in quest of the nation’s No. 1 rating.