Minnesota teams have done an extraordinary job winning national championships -- or coming close -- in tournaments that don't exactly get a lot of major-media exposure. (We're not making a value judgment here as much as noting that none of these titles are at the highest level in their sports.)
The recent list: The Gophers women's basketball team won the Women's Basketball Invitational (for teams that didn't make the NCAA or the NWIT); Concordia-St. Paul has won five straight NCAA Division II volleyball titles, The NSC Stars soccer team (now the Minnesota Stars FC) won the North American Soccer League title, North Dakota State (yes, we're being a bit expansionist here) won the Football Championship Subdivision title and the semipro St. Paul Pioneers football team won the Northern Elite Football League title.
Also, there were the Gophers men in the NIT title game; the St. Paul Saints who reached the American Association finals, and the St. Thomas football team, which made in to the Division III semifinals. (We pretty much think of that as a national title because the same two teams (Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater, have played each other in that championship game for the last seven years, which makes then Division III-plus, in our minds.)
That's quite a run of niche sports and niche leagues.
Tonight, at 6 p.m., the Rochester Ice Hawks are playing host to the hated Long Island Royals, in the U.S. Tier III Junior Hockey tournament semifinals at the Rochester Rec center. (Good seats available at the door.) A victory puts the Hawks in the noon Tuesday title game against the winner of the Billings-Atlanta game.
You didn't know about the Ice Hawks or Tier III hockey? Here's the quick deal: The Ice Hawks play in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, an eight-team league that has franchises in the metro area (Bloomington, Edina and maple Grove, as a team in the Wisconsin Dells). Players pay to participate in the league, which makes it different from the higher levels of junior hockey, and the Rochester team has been a perennial national title contender.
One thing to notice: This isn't exactly a Minnesota team for Minnesotans. Check the team's roster page and you'll only find one state player on the team. Players are generally hoping to catch on with colleges that field NCAA Division III or American Collegiate Hockey Association teams, or to get to a higher level of junior hockey. In other words, you're not likely to see them in the WCHA or NHL.
Sounds like another perfectly appropriate tournament for a Minnesota team to win while we wait for the top guns -- aside from the Lynx and Gophers women's hockey team (and maybe now the men) to get their championship acts together.
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