It's not March, but it's time for some Madness. Winter sport tournament time is so much fun for sports fans and media folk alike.
This week, local high school boys' hockey playoffs got underway. With the state tournament now less than two weeks away, here's a quick look at what to expect in the local tournaments.
Duluth East is such a heavy favorite in 7AA, and this time they have some extra motivation. The David Brown Show in last year's 7AA semis was one of the best high school games I've ever seen, but it still must sting for the 'Hounds. Take a 22-win team, give them one of the best hockey coaches in the state (at any level), and throw a memory like that in for good measure, and you have a team that's going to be extremely tough to beat.
Who challenges them? Not sure it's going to be Forest Lake. The Rangers found a way to win at Andover in the quarterfinals, but I don't think their trek to the DECC Saturday is going to end well.
In the other half of the bracket, I see Elk River emerging. Cloquet/Esko/Carlton got great goaltending from Jordan Thompson to upset Grand Rapids, but they have to find a way to get more offense to beat Elk River Saturday afternoon. The Elks have too much balance and will bring too much heat for Thompson to get it done by himself again.
I believe East will take care of the Elks in the final.
I love Section 7A. It's ridiculously wide open. Any of the top four seeds could emerge, and I wouldn't be at all surprised. I love Hibbing's blend of skill and experience, and they seem to always find a way to the DECC for the final, no matter their seed and no matter what people think of their chances. Virginia/MIB is the sentimental favorite, as they have just one previous trip to state (Matt Niskanen's senior year).
Duluth Marshall is the defending champion, and they have the best player in the section in Zach Mausolf. However, the Hilltoppers have struggled on the blue line, and I'm not sure they can hold off either Hibbing or VMIB.
As for International Falls, they don't have a team like the one Ben Gordon and Tom Biondich led to state, or the one Jake Youso and Brady Hjelle starred on. Instead, the Broncos have balance. Nine players have at least 20 points, and that makes them a tough team to beat. If Mike Hart can be strong in goal, the Broncos are a huge threat.
In the end, I like Chris Westin and Garrett Hendrickson to lead Virginia/MIB back to St. Paul, beating Hibbing in the final. The last time these two played in a section final, over 4,500 fans made the trek to the DECC to see it. You couldn't have asked for a better section final atmosphere.
St. Cloud Cathedral is back as the favorite, thanks to an experienced team led by defenseman Nate Schmidt. The Crusaders knocked off Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld last year, but would only face one of them this year. This is an odd season for 5A, as it's weaker than usual. Fourth seed Sauk Rapids is well under .500, and no one else in the section plays anything remotely resembling a strong schedule.
This Denfeld bunch doesn't have the pizzazz of last year's, but they're scrappy, hard-working, and a tough out in this tournament. Hermantown, the second seed, lost a 2-1 game at SCC earlier in the season, but they've proven they can beat anyone in the state.
Of course, a Denfeld-Hermantown semi isn't a complete lock. The Hunters first have to get by a Proctor team that took them to overtime during the regular season. The Rails have some intriguing young talent, but they'll need a Herculean effort from goalie Derek Robinson to beat Denfeld.
I see Cathedral practically breezing into the final, where they'll run into Hermantown. The Hawks get revenge for last year's semifinal loss, and they get back to state.
Superior plays Hudson in New Richmond for the Section 1 title on Saturday. The Spartans should be able to get back to state, and I think they have a really good chance to win it all once they get there.
Big Blue was a bit inconsistent at times, but Jason Kalin has been superb at getting his team ready to play the big games. With no clear favorite in Wisconsin, Superior's superb schedule should allow them to emerge.