Hagen Burrows (left) and Javon Moore (right) are both back for a loaded Minnetonka squad this season.
When the previous season’s number one wins it all and brings the vast majority of its team back, it’s not hard to figure out who belongs in the top spot. Hagen Burrows, Gavin Garry, Javon Moore, and Alex Lunski give them a heap of weapons up front, and John Stout leads a defense that lives up to his name. I could go on. They have the talent to be a very special team, but with 5 games against the three teams immediately below them and single games against those ranked 5-7, they will definitely have to earn it. We’ll see if they can achieve what no team has done in a decade and repeat as AA champs, and just how many regular season wins they can rack up. Andover headlines their first four ahead of a collision with Chanhassen on December 7.
The top seven scorers are back from a team that took the state champs to overtime in the section final last season, with the top line of Gavin Uhlenkamp, Jack Christ, and Caden Lee looking to put up some video game numbers in the Metro West. This is the time for a senior-loaded team, but they have to go through the Skippers once again, and if they are without Kam Hendrickson—the one question looming over these rankings as I click ‘Post’—that will make the task that much harder. They open in Minnetonka, but don’t face the Skippers quiet yet; instead, they start out with Andover and get a couple of respectable section opponents.
The firepower offered by Jackson Nevers, Bobby Cowan, and Mason West is some of the best the Hornets have had to offer in recent memory, and with new addition Michael Risteau and sparkplug Ryan Flaherty also adding punch up front, the Hornets’ offense can go stride for stride with any in the state. The defense isn’t quite as complete as the other top teams, though a strong Elite League campaign by Joey Bertram should shore up the gap in goal. As usual, they test themselves early in Wayzata (though a set Turkey Trot schedule this season means they won’t play the Trojans until the Lake Conference season) and have an important section game with Benilde looming.
With five of their top six scorers back from a season ago, including Elite League leading scorer Brittan Alstead, this has a chance to be the most explosive Trojan team in the Pat O’Leary era. Combine that with a solid core returning defensemen reinforced by transfer Carson Clark and the customary depth here and this team is right there with Edina at the top of 6AA. There are no pushovers in their first few weeks of the season.
The Pioneers return the vast majority of a team that pushed Minnetonka to the brink last season, and a little more experience should spice up an offense that was at times plodding on the way to their consolation title. Landon Cottingham and Graham Greeder lead them on the blue line, and they just have so many interchangeable parts up front. They won’t be as flashy as their company in the top six, but the depth, discipline, and scheme to get it all done is certainly here. Hermantown headlines the early road
Jackson Nevers, Edina
The Royals couldn’t quite finish the deal a season ago, but Mason Jenson and Parker Deschene will bring plenty of flair to their attack, and they have a lot of talent on defense, too. Their top players are a bit on the young side relative to the other contenders here, and the depth up front isn’t quite as experienced, but this program is gushing with talent, and the skill is right there with the others in the top six. They can make a statement that they belong in this tier in early contests with the two teams immediately below them in these rankings.
Now this gets harder. This Spuds team fits the mold of the past few: brimming with young talent, as near a lock for a Tourney berth as AA can offer, but needing to prove they can take that next step to be a real front-line contender. Mason Kraft should put up big points, they add an elite bantam class with a couple instant contributors, and Kai Weigel has the best pedigree of any AA goalie. But can they be more than a moderately interesting lower seed on Thursday at the X? They play three of the top six in their first four games, so we’ll see just how ready this group is for primetime right away.
8. St. Thomas Academy
The Cadets will miss the explosiveness of Tommy Cronin and don’t have the flashy forwards of the teams ahead of them, but they do return a strong defensive core and have their customary depth up front, which has traditionally not been a bad formula for Mike Randolph. Cody Niesen slides into the net, further strengthening their back end. Rogers in The Opener gives them a chance to show something, and Eastview is also up early in a significant section game.
9. Cretin-Derham Hall
These Raiders look respectable in all phases of the game, with Chuck Owens leading the offense while the roster beyond that isn’t quite as stacked from top to bottom as the teams ahead of them, it’s still awfully good. If some of the younger guns like Max Anderson, Szilveszter Lippai, and Jimmy Dodig can step up and lead, they probably have a higher ceiling than section rival St. Thomas. Their schedule has a leisurely start, but the first test is not an easy one.
10. Maple Grove
The Crimson graduate seven of their top eight scorers from a season go, but if any program can survive that, it’s this one. Lucas Busch will be asked to carry the load offensively, and as usual, there’s a new generation of young talent pouring in. They’ll be in the unusual position of being the chaser this season; with all the pressure on Rogers, can they calmly reload and clinch a fifth straight Tourney berth? As usual they face an immediate test in the Wayzata Turkey Trot, where they are the lowest-ranked team in the field, but the schedule lightens up between that stiff test and the holidays
Mason Jenson, Rogers
The three star forwards who carried the Huskies to new heights over the past few seasons are gone now. Most of the supporting cast, however, remains, including the bulk of a defense that improved markedly over the course of last season. If they can score enough, this program can take another step in its progression: using its overwhelming depth to pick up right where they left off and claim a fifth straight 7AA title. It can’t get much tougher than their opening weekend, so it’ll be apparent early just how big of a rebuild this is.
12. Holy Family
There was a lot of activity in Victoria this offseason, but it’s hard to say what the net impact is on this squad for 2023-2024. Between Holden Pajor and Bryce Wiitala and Connor Crowley they should score some goals, but we’ll see if there’s enough here, especially on the back end, to be more than a sacrificial lamb of a 3-seed in a top-heavy 2AA. They have just one game in the early going, though it matters for the section.
13. White Bear Lake
The Bears have some serious firepower in the form of Nolan Roed, and a back end featuring Will Distad on D and Leo Gabriel in goal looks like the sort that is built for playoff success; they’ve got a new coach in the fold, too. Their bantam team last season was one of their best in recent memory. If they can round out the depth well enough, they can give Hill a run; if not, they may again miss the section final. Duluth East offers a respectable season-opening barometer.
14. Duluth East
The Hounds return a fair amount of firepower from last season’s potent team; led by Thomas Gunderson, they will certainly score goals. They have a capable goaltender, but the question here is whether a completely rebuilt defense will be up to the task. If that unit comes together, they’ll have a fighting chance at Andover. They have a busy start: early battles with White Bear and Wayzata will measure them against higher-ranked competition, Shakopee is an intriguing matchup, and a game with Grand Rapids will set the tone in the 7AA race.
The Noah Urness show has a chance to put up some historic numbers in a program that has seen lots of them, and he has some respectable support in the likes of Gavin Jensen and Jake Halvorson. They return a decent number of bodies in back, too. If they can overcome some recent playoff scuffles, they have as good a shot at Moorhead as any Rams team in recent memory. Improving Brainerd is the most notable of their three early opponents
Nolan Roed, White Bear Lake
Hit by some departures, the Eagles look like they’ll be a bit short of their usual standard this season. They could still sneak up on a few people, though: with Mason Moe and Cole Saterdalen and a pretty good defensive core to withstand the assaults of the big three in the Lake, they’re not a poorly built team. Whether that’s enough to be a serious threat in today’s 2AA may be a different story, though. Hill-Murray is their only opponent over these first two weeks.
The Red Knights suffered a lot of outmigration this offseason on the heels of a season where the results didn’t really match the talent. The foundations of a pesky team are here in their Masons on the blue line, Minor and Stenger, who should be very productive. Can they turn the corner, or is this program, now a decade removed from its last Tourney appearance, now mired in a struggle to live up to the talent that flows through it? An early meeting with Edina will say a lot.
With Cooper Simpson seemingly back in the fold and a bevy of talented sophomores, the Sabers should continue their rise into contention. They are now the odds-on favorites in the South Suburban, though in some ways this says more about the state of the conference than the Sabers; as with Eden Prairie, proving they’re more than a semi-distant chaser to Minnetonka and Chanhassen will be a big demand. They get two teams on a similar level right away in Duluth East and Holy Angels, and follow that up with aforementioned Chanhassen.
The Stars remain one of the bigger enigmas heading into this season. They have a real talent in Ryder Betzold and return decent depth; the question is if the real Stars are the team that muddled through a respectable but unexciting regular season or the one that went on a push to a section final. This ranking splits the difference there. The schedule seems to get marginally better every year, but outside of a game with East Grand Forks, their first five won’t tell us a ton.
There’s a lot of young talent down in Richfield, with a growing supporting cast for Henry Lechner, and this could be the season the Starts should look to take the next step up into serious contention. Pushing Edina and Wayzata in 6AA remains a tall order, but they have a realistic shot at Benilde for the 3-seed. It’s time for this team to show a bit more: can the ascent continue? Shakopee offers an opening weekend test in Bloomington, and Woodbury the following Saturday is a team worth watching in the fringe of these rankings, too.
It’s Harper Searles’ time to shine: he should keep the Cougars in contention this season, and there are enough other things going on in this program to keep them in the running for the 3-seed in a competitive 5AA. Mahtomedi and Eastview start them off with first two weeks that are busy, but do not feature front-line AA competition.
The state’s greatest goalie factory is at it again, producing lots of good options, and they’ve got a couple of strong two-way defenders in Bauer Murphy and Luka Rohloff. They didn’t score a whole lot last season, though, and while they had a glob of Elite League forwards, a few of them are going to need to take some real steps up to make a serious run at the section. The Grant Clafton era has a busy start that begins with Hibbing, a historic rival with some new intrigue, followed by a run of section games headlined by Duluth East.
The Cardinals are a good sleeper, with star Tyler Barsness and sidekick Eli Boden carrying the load for a team that brings back basically everyone else from a team that was competitive in a 7AA semifinal last season. To their misfortune, they were got bumped to 5AA this offseason, leaving a much tougher road to contention. Still, another semifinal is within reach, and they have enough talent to turn a few heads. The early schedule, which includes Chisago Lakes and Duluth Denfeld, should allow them to show what they’re capable of offensively.
With the last ties to their great 2021 squad now gone, there will be a lot of fresh faces on the south side this season; while they still have more organizational depth than anyone else in their section and they have some work to do to stay on top. Jackson Ernst will carry the load and they added some talent via the transfer portal, most notably Brayden Olson of Northfield. The early schedule is not onerous, with a Northwest Suburban kick against Champlin and Blaine, but will at least tell us something about them relative to the sorts of teams they’ll need to beat to win their section.
Park of Cottage Grove
It’s top-heavy, but it’s awfully potent: between Jackson Rudh, Owen Corkish, and Gavin Moss, the Wolfpack have 151 points back in the fold. If those three can get any sort of supporting cast, this can be a dangerous team in a 3AA that could stand to see some disruption. They kick things off with Forest Lake and Eagan.
Harper Searles, Centennial