Thursday is the start of the best high school sports tournament in the nation. The 18,000-seat XCel Energy Center is expected to be sold out for all four sessions of this year's Minnesota State High School Boy's Class AA Tournament.
Here is what this year's bracket looks like. There's a lot of excitement about this year's field for a few different reasons. First, all eight schools are public schools. Second, there are lot of newer faces at this year's tournament. It's rare to not see a state tournament bracket that doesn't include the likes of a Edina, Hill-Murray and Duluth East, let alone all three. Farmington is making their first appearance in the big tournament. Anoka is back for the first time since 2003. Burnsville and Grand Rapids haven't been to the tournament since 2007. The new blood brings a lot of excitement to the event.
And finally, this year's tournament should be a great one because it is one of the most wide open tournament fields in recent memory. Lots of upsets in the sectional round, and a year where nobody was really that dominant has created a tournament where just about anyone in the field can walk away with a win.
With that in mind, here's a look at the eight teams in this year's Class AA field.
Section: 5AA(northwest metro Twin Cities)
The story: The Tornadoes are the biggest surprise in this year's field. They were the only team seeded lower than second to come out of their section. The Tornadoes upset second seed Centennial in the semifinal round, then defeated the section's fourth seed Maple Grove in the final.
Cheer for them if: You like the underdog. Also, they blare an actual God damn tornado siren when they score at their home rink, which is pretty cool.
Players to Watch: Junior forward Isaac Johnson is of the top uncommitted college prospects in state right now. The other top forward for Anoka is senior Michael Talbot, who could earn an opportunity in junior hockey next year. Junior defenseman Colin Hans is another potential junior hockey prospect. Sophomore forward Carter Perry is a small but scrappy energy player with a bright future.
Section: 8AA(northwestern Minnesota)
The story: Bemidji is back in the tournament for the second straight year after a long Tourney drought. While last year they have just been happy to be in St. Paul, this year's group is seeded and has the potential to make some noise in this year's bracket.
Cheer for them if: You like Paul Bunyan, and/or hate trees
Players to Watch: Defensemen Chase Hartje and Nick Leitner are solid Division I prospects. Forwards Brady Tatro, Jack Johnson and Alex Pollock are the top prospects on offense with junior hockey potential, and sophomore goalie Matt FItzgerald is one of the more underrated goalies in the state.
Section: 3AA(southeast metro Twin Cities)
The story: Burnsville's recent hockey history has been as the perennial bridesmaid, losing multiple sectional finals to Edina during the Hornets' nine-year streak of tournament appearances. But when the MSHSL reassigned sections last spring, Burnsville moved to 3AA, providing a slightly easier path to the tournament. The Blaze pulled a surprising upset in the section final by blowing out St. Thomas Academy
Cheer for them if: Brock Boeser is granted one final weekend of eligibility.
Players to Watch: Burnsville is always a deep, solid team, but this year they have little in the way of star power. Senior forwards Cade Borchardt and Eric Otto are the two most likely junior hockey prospects.
Eden Prairie Eagles
Section: 2AA(south metro Twin Cities)
The story: Eden Prairie won state titles in 2009 with Nick Leddy, and 2011 with Kyle Rau. This year, they come into the tournament as the number one seed with another player that is likely to play in the NHL some day in Casey Mittelstadt.
Cheer for them if: You like the movie Mallrats
Players to watch: Watch Casey Mittelstadt and appreciate the privilege of it. Players like him don't come around very often. Notre Dame commit Michael Graham is a potential mid-to-late round NHL Draft pick. Defenseman Nick Leivermann is a D-1 prospect. Cole Lawrence and Nolan Sullivan have potential has solid junior players.
Section: 1AA(southern Minnesota)
The Story: A strong senior class has led Farmington to the school's first Class AA tournament. They beat defending state champion Lakeville North three times this year, including a win in their section tournament final.
Cheer for them if: You want to see Farmington win something, because this might be their best shot for a while.
Players to Watch: Senior defenseman Tyler Jette is a potential NHL Draft prospect. Other seniors including Grady Hauswirth, Erik Holmstrom, and John Siebenaler are potential junior hockey players. Sophomore goalie Gavin Enright has had an excellent season.
Grand Rapids Thunderhawks
Section: 7AA(northeastern Minnesota)
The Story: This past fall, I described Grand Rapids as a town of hockey pride, paper milling and not much else. But do they ever have a lot of hockey pride. Folks in Grand Rapids have long pointed to this year as the year they might make a run in the tournament, and after a dramatic section final win over Duluth East, the Halloween Machine is back in St. Paul.
Cheer for them if: You have a soul.
Players to Watch: Forwards Mitch Mattson and Gavin Hain are committed to North Dakota. Blake McLaughlin is committed to Minnesota. Defenseman John Stampohar is a potential D-1 commit. Forwards Alex Adams, Jonah Bischoff, Jason Koehn and Micah Miller are likely junior hockey players.
Section: 4AA (east metro Twin Cities)
The Story: Last time Stillwater made the tournament--two years ago, in their first ever appearance--they were just happy to be there after pulling off a shocking upset in their section final. This year, Stillwater is deep and loaded with talent and come in as a major contender for the title. The Ponies were snubbed a bit for the number seed. They had a 27-1-1 record, but didn't face as much high quality competition in the Suburban East Conference as some of the teams in the southwest suburbs did. It might be to their benefit to come in with a chip on their shoulder, rather than facing the expectation of being the top seed.
Cheer for them if: You've watched this video 1000 times already.
Players to Watch: Senior Jackson Cates committed to Michigan Tech late this season. His younger brother Noah, the scorer of THE GOAL, is a strong college prospect too. Fellow juniors Luke Manning, Jesse Bjugstad and TJ Sagissor were also USHL Futures selections last year. Senior goalie Josh Benson will likely play junior hockey next season as well.
Section: 6AA (southwest meto Twin Cities)
The Story: Wayzata was the beneficiary of overall #1 Benilde-St. Margaret's falling in the semifinal round of the section tourament. The Trojans played a really tough regular season schedule and are one of the toughest defensive teams in the state.
Cheer for them if: You went to Wayzata High School. And with a high school enrollment of over 3000 students, chances are good that you did.
Players to Watch: Wayzata has three players already committed to NCAA schools: senior forwards Mark Senden(North Dakota), and Billy Duma(Air Force), and sophomore defenseman Grant Anderson(Omaha). Sophomore forward Colin Schmidt is the leading goal scorer for the Trojans and will be a highly-coveted NCAA recruit. Junior defenseman Hank Sorenson logs a lot of minutes an is a very talented player.