Denfeld News

Feb. 28, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

Hunters fall short in bid for state
By Jon Nowacki

Duluth Denfeld senior Jake Johnson is expected to travel to Iowa today to join Sioux City of the United States Hockey League.

Johnson, however, refused to pack his bags on Wednesday. Johnson and his Hunters teammates had come too far to even think about their high school season ending early.

St. Cloud Cathedral, however, had other ideas, and on Wednesday the top-seed Crusaders played the spoiler, scoring three unanswered goals to beat Denfeld 3-1 in the Section 5A boys hockey title game before a packed crowd at Cloquet Area Recreation Center.

Denfeld, the section’s third seed, was trying for its first state tournament berth since 1989, and Hunters fans turned out in droves for the potential return trip.

“Our fans have been awesome, and I can’t even imagine how the people in West Duluth would have come out if we had made the state tournament,” Johnson said. “I was so into this year that I didn’t even want to think about the USHL until March 12th or 15th, or whenever the state tournament is over, but we just came up a little short.”

In reality, the state tournament is a little sooner than that. Cathedral (22-5-1) now advances to play in the Class A quarterfinals Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Cathedral beat Denfeld 6-4 during a high-scoring regular season matchup, but the section finale started with a fast-paced but scoreless first period.

Denfeld (17-11) opened the scoring at 9:47 in the second when Chris Stafne deflected a shot from Johnson into the net to give the Hunters a 1-0 lead. It was short lived, however, as Cathedral’s Evan Quist took a nice centering pass from teammate Alex Koopmeiners to knot it at 1 at 11:10 in the second.

“I thought we did a good job early on keeping that big scoring line of Jake and Chris and Cody [Hotchkin] off the board, but we forgot about the offensive side of things,” said Cathedral coach Eric Johnson. “I think that goal, in a way, might have helped us. It kind of woke us up.”

Crusaders junior forward Sam Lommel’s power-play goal at 14:57 in the second period proved to be the game-winner. The Hunters threatened in the third period but just couldn’t get a shot past Cathedral goalie Nick Maiers, who made 11 of his 17 saves in the third. Nate Schmidt’s wrist shot from the left point with 3:58 remaining provided the top-seeded Crusaders with insurance as Denfeld mounted one last frantic push.

The Hunters’ best chance came on the power play midway through the period when junior forward Kevin Nagen pounced on his own rebound, but Maiers somehow managed to glove Nagen’s next shot.

“The goaltender made a great save –– bottom line,” said Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley. “That would have tied the game. That was it.

“I don’t think Cathedral had a better team, but it was just one of those nights. We were right there, and to see the fans come out shows there is pride back into our program. The Hunters are here to stay. We plan on competing at this level forever, hopefully.”

A big reason behind Denfeld’s resurgence was Jake Johnson, one of 10 seniors on the Hunters’ roster. Several high-profile players left to play junior hockey this year, including Hermantown’s Drew LeBlanc, who happens to be Johnson’s cousin. Johnson stayed because he wanted to lead his team to state.

“Obviously, it’s not fun losing, but it doesn’t change a thing,” Johnson said. “I got one more chance to play hockey with a great group of guys. We had a great season, and I’ll never regret not leaving early.”

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