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#5 Mankato East vs. Austin

Who: Mankato East HS vs. Austin HS
Where: Lund Arena, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota
When: February 25th, 2006
Final Score: 3-2 Mankato East

This game was the Section 1A semifinal back when Section 1A was probably the weakest section in the state, so this wasn't necessarily a game between the greatest two hockey teams. Current Air Force defenseman Tim Kirby played for Austin, but other than that, there's no real recognizable names on either side. But whatever this game lacked in skill, it made up for ten times over in terms of grit and heart.

Austin was the #2 seed in the section, while Mankato East was seeded third, thanks to these two teams tying in Mankato, and Austin winning 4-1 at home in the regular season. Earlier that day, 4th seed Marshall had upset top seeded Austin Lea--a game that very well may have made this list had I been there, because I have a tough time imagining how that happened--so the door was open for the winner of this game to make it to the state tournament.

Gustavus' arena is set up really nicely for neutral site games with a balcony of seats along each sideline, giving each team half of the arena. Austin was a little more organized in their cheering, giving an especially tough time to Mankato East's goalie, while you could tell the Mankato East contingent wasn't used to being able to cheer their team in big games, but they were no less enthused.

Austin had the edge in play most of the day. It looked like every kid on their team was only about 5'11" or so, but had eaten Spam three meals a day every day for their entire life, was a solid 190 lbs. or so. Mankato East wasn't as strong, and was probably about a half step slower, but did everything they could to hang in the game.

After a scoreless first period, Mankato East opened up the scoring less than a minute into the second period, but Austin answered back with two goals in the second period to take the lead. Austin had a number of chances to extend their lead, but Mankato East held strong and went to the locker room only trailing by one.

You would have expected the underdog to wear down in the third period after doing nearly everything in their power just to keep the game close through 2 periods, but Mankato East came out like a different team in the third period. They scored twice in the first three minutes of the period to put themselves back on top. The final 14 minutes of the game was like a game in itself. Mankato East had an insurance goal disallowed a couple different times due to the net coming off right before the puck crossed the line. Austin had some great chances as well. A number of times they worked the puck back to Tim Kirby at the point for big slap shots, but Mankato East were literally throwing themselves in front of every shot, and doing whatever they could to maintain their lead.

That Mankato East team wasn't the most skilled, or the fastest, or the prettiest group of players. But I've never seen a team play with more heart. It doesn't take a lot of skill to block a shot, but it does take a lot of guts to dive in front of a guy winding up for a slap shot and get hit somewhere where you may or may not be padded. It takes a lot of effort to stay with someone on the backcheck at the end of a long shift. They were so close to their school's first ever trip to the state tournament, and they were going to do whatever it took to make sure they got there. In all the hockey I've seen, I'm not sure I've ever seen a team play harder.

As a postscript to this game, Mankato East did beat Marshall in the section final to earn their first trip to the state tournament where they lost an incredibly entertaining game to Little Falls something like 7-6. Both Mankato East and Austin completely fell off the hockey map after that game however. Austin only won one game last season, against Mankato East. Neither team has won more than 6 games in a season since. Hopefully, one day they'll both make it back to prominence.