LUVERNE -- When a Luverne High School hockey team competes in a state tournament, the Cardinals don’t just play for themselves. They play for the whole southwest corner of Minnesota.
Section 3 still doesn’t get a lot of respect around the state. Luverne, which has become a real hockey hotbed in recent years, wants to see that change, and the best way that will happen will be to not only get to the state tournament, but to win there.
Tonight at 6 p.m., Luverne will play its 2017 state Class A boys tournament opener against top-ranked Hermantown at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul. Probably no one outside of Luverne expects the Cardinals to win.
But they’ve been underdogs before.
Their first and only previous state tournament appearance was in 2014 when, after losing in the quarterfinals 6-3 to Hermantown, they won their next game 5-2 over Chisago Lakes and finished sixth overall -- losing in two overtimes to Totino-Grace in the consolation championship.
Now the Cardinals are back. And again, a powerful Hermantown Hawks team is the immediate foe. Hermantown, the defending Class A champion, comes in with a 26-1-1 record and a 26-game winning streak. They have outscored their opposition 165-35.
Unranked Luverne is 22-5-1.
The Cardinals can hang their skates on having allowed only 32 goals this season -- admittedly, against several opponents who don’t quite rise to the level of competition Hermantown has played.
To the Cardinal skaters, however, statistics don’t mean much at this stage of the season.
“We knew we were going to fall in that random draw category,” said LHS head coach Phil Paquette during the team’s final pre-state practice Monday afternoon. “So we knew we’d have to play against one of the best in the state.”
Paquette describes Hermantown as a squad that is solid in both zones. Fast, big and strong. A team that won’t beat itself. Consequently, he’s reminding his players that they must play mistake-free against the Hawks to have a chance to win.
Junior forward Kasyn Kruse, a speedy spark plug with exceptional quickness and hands, is Luverne’s top point-scorer in the 2016-17 campaign. Junior Nick Harder, sophomore Ben Serie and senior Jesse Reed are also at the top of the scoring list. Senior goaltender Kaden Ericson has enjoyed an outstanding winter in goal, and he’ll need to stay on his game against the supremely talented Hawks.
To a man, the Cardinals say it’s teamwork that has animated their team all year.
“We don’t have like one or two players. We all depend on each other,” said Kruse.
“I think we just really work really well together this year,” said Ericson.
Confidence is not a problem for the Cards, either.
“I think we can catch (Hermantown) off guard if we play our way and not worry so much about our surroundings,” added Kruse.
In 2015, a top-seeded Luverne quad geared up for a return trip to the state boys tournament only to get upset by New Ulm in the Section 3A finals. Then in 2016 the Cardinals were again the No. 1 seed but lost 7-6 to Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato in the finals after leading 6-5 in the third period.
Narrow misses like that have helped to focus the 2016-17 Cardinals on finishing what they’ve set out to do. They’re also well aware that, with the state of hockey what it is in southwest Minnesota, they’re representing more than just themselves.
“We want to see (hockey) continuing to grow in the southwest corner of the state,” Paquette said. “Because if we’re going to be known as the state of hockey, we gotta do our best to keep it going, too.”
As far as Luverne hockey goes, it’s never been more popular. In 2016, the Cardinal girls hockey team competed in its first-ever state tournament, and there’s never a lack of recruits for the sport, young or old.
Paquette spreads credit around, from the hockey association which has tried to improve “each and every year,” to improved facilities, devoted parents and fans, to the fact that ice is available nearly year-round, and to excited young wannabes.
“You walk through the elementary school and there are hockey fanatics out there wearing the jerseys,” Paquette said.
And now, on the verge of another year of state tournament competition, the Cardinals are happy to take on the typical role of a Section 3 team -- believing that being overlooked might just be the inspiration they need.
“Luverne, a small town. No one believes we can make it. Going to state shows that we can,” said Reisch. “Kind of like you’re the underdog. And the underdog can win sometimes.”