Section playoff finals command spotlight

John Gilbert

Duluth East's top line did the major damage in the 5-1 elimination of Denfeld in the 7AA quiarterfinals at Essentia Heritage Center last week as center Thomas Gunderson (15) had 2 goals, 3 assists for 5 points, right wing Wyuatt Peterson (11) had 2-2--4, and left wing Noah Teng (4) had three assists, giving the line 12 points. Photo by John Gilbert.

Since before the division of the Minnesota high school hockey teams into two classes, the Thursday night of the week before the state tournament has been a treasure, because that’s when the two best teams in Northern Minnesota would come together for the Region 7 championship.

More often than not, in the good ol’ days, the Region 7 winner would go on to become the state champion a week later. Look back at the fantastic Eveleth teams of the 1950s, and then the International Falls dynasty that took over in the 1960s, Greenway of Coleraine with solid support from Hibbing and then Grand Rapids, ran that superiority into the 1990s.

Next came Duluth East, which either won or contended for the 7AA title every year for more than two decades, and which played one of its best games in eliminating a solid Denfeld rival 5-1 in the quarterfinals behind the spectacular production of its top line. Center Thomas Gunderson scored two goals and assisted on three more — which is all the points you can get out of five goals — while his wings, Noah Teng (0-3–3) and Wyatt Peterson (2-2—4) worked off Gunderson in a flashy display of teamwork and effectiveness.

It was so impressive that it seemed the Greyhounds had a shot at upsetting favored Andover on Semifinal Saturday at AMSOIL Arena. Unfortunately for the Hounds, Andover coach Mark Manney also paid close attention to that game.

“Thomas Gunderson is the best forward in our section,” said Manney. “We knew we had to slow him down and prevent him from doing what he usually does.”

Manney played his top line, centered by Ben Doll, against East’s top line, and not only did they harness East’s big line, but Doll scored three goals in Andover’s 4-1 victory against the Greyhounds. Teng got East’s only goal, after the Huskies had three goals on the board.

That sends Andover back onto the AMSOIL ice Thursday at 7:05 pm to face Grand Rapids for the 7AA title.

Grand Rapids jumped ahead of Rock Ridge 3-0 in the first, made it 6-0 in the second, and held on for a 6-2 triumph over the Wolverines in the first semifinal. Of course, it makes sense to split the teams by enrollment size into Classes AA and A, despite all the arguments and hassles of who should be where.

The primary example is Hermantown, which rose to domination in Class A, even while beating almost all of the state’s top AA teams. This season, a few early departures to play elsewhere affected the Hawks, although coach Pat Andrews pulled everything together in time to make its annual run through 7A, where the Hawks whipped a really solid Proctor outfit 6-3 last Saturday in Semifinal Saturday at AMSOIL Arena and moved on to face Hibbing/Chisholm, which surprised Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 4-2 in the other semifinal.

Proctor had goaltender AJ Reyelts, who is one of three finalists for the Frank Brimsek goaltender of the year award, but the Rails had more than just a great goalie, with a speedy, tenacious bunch of skaters who came flying out at the start and grabbed the early lead on a goal by Dylan Davidson. The Hawks were able to turn to their ace, River Freeman, who scored a stunning short-handed goal for a 1-1 tie.

Hermantown poured it on with two more goals in the second period and made it 4-1 before the plucky Rails scored again to cut it to 4-2. Bradford Skytta’s second goal boosted the Hawks to a 5-2 lead, but Austin Bryant scored from the slot to cut it back to 5-3. It was then that Freeman scored one of the season’s most impressive goals, speeding through three Rail defenders before pulling back to the slot and firing a pinpoint bullet into the upper right corner of the net on Reyelts at 11:12, just 38 seconds after Proctor had scored.

The high school sectionals indicated that we’re in a time of sports transition, as both UMD hockey teams were out of town — the women losing twice at Minnesota to end their regular WCHA season, while the men endured two losses at North Dakota, 6-0 and 4-2. The women return home to play a best-of-three WCHA quarterfinal playoff series against St. Cloud State Friday, Saturday, and, if needed, Sunday.

The men have two weeks to go in the NCHC, and will try to snap a six-game losing streak at Colorado College this weekend. The two UMD basketball teams both won their home finales last week, and while they weren’t always pretty, winning was most important to take into this week’s Northern Sun tournament, where both Bulldogs teams have first-round byes before playing host to playoff games.

The women’s game was ragged, and with spark plug Taya Hakamaki in street clothes with a season-ending ACL injury, No. 0, Tatum Rhoades, took charge. She scored 19 points to lead both teams, but her best play of the night was a perfect pass to Ella Gilbertson under the basket for a layup to break a 62-62 deadlock with 1 second left for a 64-63 victory. Yes, UMD was called for a foul on a collision on St. Cloud State’s throw-in, but a missed second free throw gave the victory to UMD.

The men had an easier time, mainly because Drew Blair was on his game, scoring 31 points in an 80-69 victory against St. Cloud State. Blair had only 11 at halftime, but he wound up with strong support from Austin Andrews with 18 and Charlie Katona with 12 before it was over.  

Of course, we also can view from afar the Twins progress in spring training games, which allowed me to learn yet another bit of evidence for why I hated the Twins trading away American League batting champion Luis Arraez a year ago.

A late-night guy on ESPN was doing a major feature on Cody Bellinger, who just signed with the Cubs. Bellinger, this fellow said, ranked No. 2 in all of Major League Baseball for batting average with two strikes, at .279. Who’s No. 1?  You guessed it — Luis Arraez, now the National League batting champion with Miami, who hit .314 with two strikes. ·         ·         ·         ·