Victorious St. Thomas Academy co-head coach Greg Vannelli had more tears than words. Hermantown boys’ hockey coach Bruce Plante called it the most difficult loss of his life.
Emotions flowed after a controversial yet thrilling conclusion to the Hawks-Cadets rivalry Saturday. St. Thomas twice rallied from two-goal deficits and scored on a power play with 6.1 seconds remaining to win 5-4 and claim its third consecutive Class 1A championship at Xcel Energy Center.
The Cadets (27-2-2) became the first team to win three consecutive titles since Bloomington Jefferson did it from 1992-94. All three came at the expense of Hermantown (25-5-1), runners-up for the fourth consecutive year.
As a metro-area private school in the smaller-school class, the Cadets — winners of five titles in eight seasons — draw more scrutiny than serenade. That reality, coupled with winning a dramatic game, triggered Vannelli’s release.
“I’m really proud of these guys,” said Vannelli, his voice cracking. “They had a target on their back all year.”
The Cadets are opting up to Class 2A next year and will compete in Section 3.
After each team scored once in the first period, crowd favorite Hermantown got second-period goals only 58 seconds apart from Scott Wasbotten and Ryan Kero to make it 3-1. The Cadets had not given up a goal in their first two tournament games.
St. Thomas Academy’s Matt Perry scored to make it 3-2, but Lane LeGarde’s late goal sent Hermantown into the locker room leading 4-2.
During intermission, Vannelli mentioned the 2011 final in which Hermantown built a 3-0 first-period lead but the Cadets won 5-4 in overtime. He encouraged his guys to dig deep once more.
Perry cut the Hawks’ lead to 4-3 at 2:53 of the third period, completing the hat trick.
“Just what we needed,” he said. “We made sure no one got down because we know we have some of the best players in the state on our team.”
The Cadets got more aggressive, and it paid off when Henry Hart tied the score 4-4 midway through the third period.
The Cadets went on the power play with less than two minutes left after Scott Wasbotten drew a holding penalty.
Trying to clear a puck from the Hermantown zone, defenseman Jake Zeleznikar said Cadets forward Alex Johnson “had me in a headlock,” but no penalty was called. The puck was played around the Hawks’ net toward sophomore Tommy Novak, who scored with 6.1 seconds remaining.
“His limits are endless,” Perry said of Novak.
Hermantown’s hard feelings could also last awhile. Back on the bench, Bo Gronseth leaned over the boards in agony as Plante screamed at officials.
“To be honest,” senior Chris Benson said, “it stinks.”