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Class AA State Tourney: Five storylines

By Karl Schuettler , 03/05/24, 1:45PM CST


Edina and Chanhassen the favorites, White Bear Lake and Grand Rapids make for intriguing nightcap, plus superstars and hot goalies abound.

Edina enters this year's tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.

New beginnings...

Anytime the Tourney starts to feel predictable, it all blows up, and we’re left with a Tourney field with just one 1-seed, two top-ten teams, and two returners from 2023. (The averages for those over the past six years are 4.8, 5.7, and 4.7, respectively.)

Top-ranked Minnetonka, the undefeated defending state champs, went down in sections. Tourney stalwarts of recent years, such as Lakeville South, Hill-Murray, Maple Grove, Andover, and Moorhead, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we have a Rochester team for the first time in 15 years, and Elk River returns for the first time in 19 years. Cretin-Derham Hall is in as a 5-seed, Elk River as a 4-seed, and Centennial knocked off two top-ten squads on the way through.

All this fresh blood from a great set of section tournaments should give us some stellar crowds at the X.

...but is it all just a sideshow? 

All season long, it’s seemed like the champions of 2AA and 6AA, whoever they might be, were on a collision course for the championship game. And while those champions may not be Minnetonka and Wayzata, who spent most of the season ranked 1 and 2, they are Edina and Chanhassen, who were right there all along.

The Hornets and Storm are, of course, very different teams. Chanhassen is making its Tourney debut after a thrilling upset of Minnetonka, while Edina is Edina, the lone true titan in a field of upstarts and revivals.

The other teams have some nice parts, but none can match the combination these two bring: both have elite top lines, grinding depth star defensemen (Owen Buesgens for Chan and Barrett Dexheimer for the Cake), and security blankets in the net. The only apparent weakness for either of them—Chanhassen’s inexperience on the big stage—is blunted somewhat by the Storm’s draw in the bracket. Can anyone topple either of these two, or can we ink in Saturday night’s matchup?

Goaltender Easton Cody stopped 83 of 86 shots faced during the Section 5AA playoffs.

Orange crush

The final AA quarterfinal between Grand Rapids and White Bear Lake is one of the juiciest in recent memory, as two of the state’s most enduring programs collide after some time away from the Tourney.

The Bears are a rare higher seed; under a new coaching staff, can they finally break the 0-19 first-round curse? Can Grant Clafton’s Thunderhawks, led by defensemen Bauer Murphy and Luka Rohloff, keep up that hardworking ideal of 218 hockey? The prospect of either of these teams getting a Friday night date with Edina would only sweeten the pot.

Turn the stars loose

Defensive machines have often ruled the road to Tourney success: Hill-Murray, Wayzata, and Mike Randolph-era Duluth East knew how to shut down opponents and win the big games. This season, that was not the case. While many of the entrants do possess strong back ends, they are not simple forechecking machines and rely on the creativity of their top players to make a difference.

Gavin Uhlenkamp is essential to Chanhassen’s success and has a strong supporting cast, while the Edina line of Jackson Nevers, Bobby Cowan, and Mason West is the best in the state. White Bear Lake’s Nolan Roed is a true MVP and now has Jack Stanius back to help him out; Mr. Hockey snub Harper Searles is the heart and soul of Centennial, and he, too, has a great sidekick in Heath Nelson.

Chuck Owens’ creativity got Cretin past St. Thomas in sections, and he has some interesting young weapons alongside him; Kole Mears leads the Elk River attack. Even if these teams aren’t as deep across the board as most Tourney entrants in your average year, they’ve got some players who will make it fun.

Protect the net

This a great Tourney for goalies. Kam Hendrickson of Chanhassen is the deserved headliner after his performance for the ages in the win over Minnetonka. Edina’s Joey Bertram doesn’t get as much hype, but was also rock-solid, and he had a contender for save of the year in the 6AA final against Wayzata. Gavin Greniuk and Easton Cody carried Elk River and Centennial, respectively, through sections; Leo Gabriel did much the same as White Bear knocked off Hill. Sophomore Carter Casey is the next product of the remarkable Grand Rapids goalie factory. At some point, someone is going to steal a big game here.

Nolan Roed of White Bear Lake is one of the superstar players to be on the big stage this week.

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