Two hockey teams from southern Minnesota will try to cap dominant seasons with national championships in USA Hockey’s highest youth level over the next six days.
Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the boarding school in Faribault, sends the No. 1-ranked Under-18 Tier I boys’ team to the national tournament Wednesday through Monday in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Shattuck’s girls’ team is top-ranked in the Under-19 Tier I tournament that runs Thursday through Monday in Irvine, Calif.
The boys carry a 40-8-4 record into nationals and seek their 10th national championship and first since 2014.
“It’s a tough tournament to win, and there’s a lot of good teams here,’’ boys’ coach Ben Umhoefer said. “We feel like we have as good a chance as anyone.’’
The girls are 43-2-3 as a favorite to win a fourth consecutive national title and ninth overall.
“It’s really important that we stick to our identity and play the game that plays to our identity, and the outcome should be fine,’’ girls’ coach Gordie Stafford said. “I tell them that there’s a lot of national champions on the team, but we’re not a national championship team.’’
That might be only a matter of time for Shattuck’s girls, who open pool play Thursday against the Anaheim Lady Ducks. Shattuck outscored opponents 283-71 this season, or an average of 5.89 to 1.48. The only losses were 2-1 to Chicago Mission in January and 5-2 to Elite League Grey on March 24 in Shattuck’s last game. Included that sterling record was a 4-4 tie with the National Women’s Hockey League-champion Minnesota Whitecaps on Feb. 21 at Ridder Arena.
“A number of their marquee players weren’t there, but it was a really good game,’’ Stafford said of the Whitecaps. “But our girls enjoyed the competition and rose to that challenge.’’
Nineteen of 20 players on Shattuck’s national team roster are committed to college programs. In addition, four alumnae helped Wisconsin win the NCAA women’s championship last month.
Shattuck’s girls team features six players with 50 or more points, led by junior forward Casey O’Brien of Milton, Mass., with 83 points (47 goals, 36 assists) and senior forward Kenzie Hauswirth of Farmington (30-43-73). O’Brien has committed to Wisconsin, Hauswirth to Quinnipiac.
Stafford has a confident team entering the national tournament, but he’s guarding against overconfidence.
“With our profile, we’re always going into the tournament viewed as one of the contenders,’’ he said. “We’re used to that, but along with it comes a certain responsibility not to take anything for granted and to realize that it doesn’t matter what team we play, we’re always going to get their best.’’
Boys’ team deep, talented
Shattuck’s boys’ team has won six consecutive games and 11 of 12 entering Wednesday’s pool play opener against the Sioux Falls Power in the national tournament. Umhoefer sees a team rounding into shape in the second half of the season. On its way to that 40-8-4 record, Shattuck had three losses and three ties during Elite League play in September and October. Since Jan. 1, it is 20-2.
“It’s a good team and we’ve had a good year,’’ he said. “We have a lot of seniors, so the leadership has been great.’’
Among the standouts for Shattuck are senior defenseman Jackson LaCombe, a Gophers recruit who has 20 goals and 61 assists for 81 points, and senior forward Brendan Brisson, a Michigan recruit who has 38 goals and 50 assists. Junior forward Artem Shlaine (30-48-78) from Moscow is one of two Russians on the team, along with junior defenseman Mikhail Gonchar, nephew of former NHL standout Sergei Gonchar.
Shattuck has outscored opponents 296-146 (5.69 to 2.87 per game), and Umhoefer likes to unleash the team’s skill, which includes seven NCAA Division I recruits.
“The team moves the puck really well. When guys are going and you move the puck well, it’s difficult to stop,’’ he said. “We have some really talented players. The whole team is unselfish.’’
One of the players about whom Umhoefer raves is LaCombe, a 6-1, 171-pound Chaska native who is in his fourth year at Shattuck.
“He’s a stud. Anybody who follows the Gophers I don’t think has any idea how good he is,’’ Umhoefer said. “He’s a terrific talent. He’s the best skater I’ve coached in my nine years here and probably the best passer, too. His toolbox is so good, and he’s just going to keep getting better and better. The Gophers and their fans are really going to like what they’re getting.’’
Shattuck will try to convert talent like LaCombe’s and that of many others into a national championship.
“When the guys really get it going,’’ Umhoefer said, “I kind of joke with some of coaches that it’s like watching a mini NHL team.’’