Today's preview will look at the 8 sections in the Class A
Section 1 covers pretty much all of southern Minnesota, east of Rochester. It includes the cities of Austin, Albert Lea, Mankato, and Marshall.
Last year was a landmark event in this section, as it marked the first time a Mankato school made the state tournament, when Mankato East upset Austin in the section semifinals and beat Marshall to travel to the state tournament. I think the trend towards Mankato, whose youth hockey program is really starting to grow, becoming a dominant force in this section will continue, but this year, I think crosstown rivals Mankato West will win the section. Mankato East was led by a huge senior class last season, and will have to start nearly from scratch this year with new players, and a new coach. West on the other hand, returns most of their top scorers from last season. Albert Lea should also have a pretty good team.
Section 2 covers the Class A schools in Duluth, and goes westward to St. Cloud, covering a lot of the area north of the Twin Cities Metro region.
Private school Duluth Marshall is the defending champ in this region, finishing runner-up to St. Thomas Academy last year. Marshall lost good players in Rob Bordson, who has been excellent in the USHL this year, and Kevin Maloney, who is playing D-3 hockey in Minnesota, but still return a lot of talent, and have a way of attracting some of the better Duluth players to their team. They'll likely win this section again this year.
St. Cloud Cathedral looked like a team that could possibly compete with the Hilltoppers, but I believe senior defenseman Matt Crandell is staying with the Sioux City Musketeers this year, and they lost talented sophomore Monte French to Hill-Murray. That leaves freshmen defenseman Nate Schmidt, who was excellent as an 8th grader last year, and will join the NTDP next season.
Section 3 covers the eastern part of the state, from Rochester up to St. Paul.
St. Thomas Academy won this section last year, and start the season as the top ranked Class A team. They lost forward Jordan Schroeder to the NTDP, but picked up a potential future NTDPer in Ryan Walters, who asserted himself as one of the top '91 birthdates in the country this past summer. St. Thomas returns reliable goaltending in Aaron Crandall, and should have enough talent to win this section. Rochester Lourdes should be their biggest competition.
This section covers most of the area west/northwest of St. Cloud, and includes cities like Sartell, Little Falls, and Alexandria.
I think this section will be won pretty easily by Little Falls, who should be one of the top Class A teams in the state. The Flyers have a lot of offensive talent and play a pretty wide open style of hockey. Former North Dakota player Tony Couture has done a great job turning Little Falls into a hockey powerhouse. They feature junior and St. Cloud recruit Jared Festler, and sophomore Ben Hanowski who may be even better. They also have a lot of experienced players returning from the previous two years where they won the section, and are adding some good players from their youth programs.
They'll face their first big test on December 1st when they face Virginia, but could be a dark horse to win the state title.(Looking WAY too far ahead, they get a tough draw in the state tournament, having to play the winner of Section 5 in the first game.)
Section 5 covers a lot of the Twin Cities Metro Area.
This was one of the toughest districts in the state last year for Class A. It featured current D-1 players Jordan Fulton and Addison DeBoer, as well as Andy Sackrison, Mike Louwerse, and Mitch Carlson, who all received Division I scholarships.
Blake looked like the favorite coming into this season, but suffered a big loss when star goalie Kent Patterson decided to play in the USHL this year for Cedar Rapids. Patterson could have really helped carry a pretty young Blake team. They still return Mike Louwerse who has already signed with Minnesota State for next season, though Louwerse will be out early due to injury.
Totino-Grace looks like the top team in this section. They were less than a period away from making another trip to the state tournament last season before Blake knocked them off in overtime. T-G was ranked #3 in Class A in the preseason poll.
Section 6A covers the south/southeastern parts of the area just outside the Twin Cities and includes cities like Faribault, Shakopee, Hutchinson, Orono and St. Michael.
Orono won this section last year, but it was the most unpredictable section in Class A, starting with 7 seed Holy Catholic Family knocking off 2 seed Shakopee, and ended with the number 3 and 4 seed meeting in the section final, with 3 seed Orono prevailing.
I'm really not sure what to make of this section. Delano was the top team last year, but lost an excellent goalie in Taylor Berent. Orono was solid, but didn't do a lot to impress me at the state tournament. Maybe I'll go off the board here and say that New Prague will surprise a lot of people.
This area covers most of the Iron Range.
Hermantown won this section pretty easily last year and was one of the best teams in the state. They lost Karl Gilbert, who is playing D-3 hockey this year, but return Drew Leblanc, who many think is a good college prospect. Aside from Leblanc, this section is loaded with college prospects including Minnesota recruit Nico Sacchetti, of Virginia, Scott Kishel, also of Virginia, Jake Youso of International Falls, and Anthony DeCenzo of Hibbing.
I think the section this year will end up looking a lot like last year, with Hibbing, Virginia, and International Falls all not having quite the depth to beat Hermantown.
Section 8 covers the northwest part of the state, including Warroad, Crookston, Lake of the Woods, and Detroit Lakes.
Thief River Falls won this section last year to make their first state tournament in like 50 years. They basically shut the town down to travel to St. Paul, and almost pulled off a huge upset over Hermantown. It was a great story, but this year looks like a return to reality, and that reality is that this is Warroad's section. Thief River Falls obviously lost a great high school player in North Dakota's Mike Forney, and also lost another top player in Robby Phillipp, who is off to a great start with Fargo-Moorhead in the NAHL.
Warroad always fields a solid team and this year is no exception. They'll be led by St. Cloud recruit and Calgary Flames draft pick Aaron Marvin.
My picks to win each section:
1: Mankato West
2: Duluth Marshall
3: St. Thomas
4: Little Falls
6: New Prague