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St. Thomas Academy, widely considered the state's best boys' hockey program regardless of class, will not need such qualifiers next season.
The Cadets will opt up to compete in Class 2A against the state's largest schools based on enrollment. They hope to finish this season with their fifth Class 1A championship overall and become the first team in either class to win three consecutive titles since Bloomington Jefferson in the 1990s.
Impressively, the Cadets defeated national prep school power Shattuck-St. Mary's of Faribault and beat strong 2A teams such as Edina, Hill-Murray and defending champion Benilde-St. Margaret's. Those victories could have created tantalizing rematches in next week's state tournament .
But the Mendota Heights school will compete one last time for a 1A title against several schools from greater Minnesota that lack the Cadets' depth of skill and resources. And players get chided for playing for a "JV'' title.
That competitive imbalance, criticized for many years by hockey observers, opposing high school coaches and even the Cadets' own alumni, swayed administrators in December to announce the change, co-head coach Greg Vannelli said.
"Ultimately, it's the right thing to do," said Vannelli, an alumnus who coaches with his brother Tom. "It's evolved into the right thing to do. The program needs another challenge now."
It's about time, said Hermantown hockey coach Bruce Plante, an outspoken critic of metro-area private schools -- able to attract top players from a large population area -- competing in the smaller-school class. "It's where they belonged all along," he said. "I'm sure they are getting that message from everyone -- it's about time."
St. Thomas follows the 2A hockey path established by fellow private schools Hill-Murray, and later Benilde-St. Margaret's and Holy Angels. Each has skated to glory against big schools but also navigated patches of rough ice along the way.
Success and scrutiny
A Zamboni-and-a-half-sized trophy case in the lobby greets visitors at the all-male, Catholic military school's on-campus rink, built for $4 million fewer than 10 years ago. The University of St. Thomas also calls the rink home. The Minnesota Wild holds practices there on occasion.
St. Thomas Academy trophies and alumni photos pack four of the trophy case's seven sections. Hanging on a nearby wall are color action posters of eight recent Cadets players who played at Division I colleges.
Much of the décor owes to the Vannellis' arrival. Greg played for the Cadets and the University of St. Thomas. Brother Tom led the Gophers' 1976 NCAA championship team in scoring.
In 2002-03, the Cadets won just three games. The Vannellis took over in 2003 and built a state championship team in three seasons by attracting players and molding them into winners.
"We never had a conversation, 'We're going to take this program and make it 2A,'" Greg Vannelli said. "After maybe the second state tournament we started to think, 'Wow, this might be something special.' It evolved without really trying to get there."
The Cadets' state titles in 2006 and 2008 helped attract current juniors Zach Weir of Mounds View and Jack Dougherty of Cottage Grove. Both defensemen saw action last season as the team won a second consecutive 1A state title. And both received flak from opposing players. "They're tired of seeing us play in the 'JV state tournament,'" Dougherty said.
Said Weir: "Some guys will say, 'Why don't you play 2A?' or 'Get a 2A championship and then we can talk.' "
Capping their senior seasons with the carrot of a 2A state title "means more in the sense that we will get more respect from other people," Weir said.
Missing the state tournament, as the Cadets did in 2009 and 2010, meant no television exposure as a method of uniting alumni and attracting student-athletes.
"I know the administration said, 'What if we never go to state again?'" Vannelli said. "We're like a small town, and small towns have to have something to wrap their arms around once a year that gets everyone excited and makes them proud of where they go to school."
At Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park, coach Ken Pauly understands the concerns of opting up. His teams won 1A state titles in 1999 and 2001 before opting up in 2005. The Red Knights reached state once in six seasons before winning the Class 2A state title last season.
"You have to be careful about not making the decision for a group of kids or parents or one coach's philosophy," Pauly said. "You have to have a solid foundation."
Then-coach Greg Trebil led Holy Angels, the Richfield school that opted up to Class 2A, to state titles in 2002 and 2005. The Stars have not qualified for the tournament since. But coach Billy Hengen, a former standout player under Trebil, said the program "is committed to playing in 2A."
"We look at it as cyclical," Hengen said. "Young players are attracted to schools that are winning, and St. Thomas and Benilde are at their peaks right now."
Hermantown, west of Duluth, lost the past three state championship games to metro-area private schools: Breck (once) and St. Thomas Academy (twice). On the eve of last season's game, Plante objected to those schools' place in the 1A tournament and declared his team "the public school state champions."
Plante's criticism stung Vannelli.
"Before we get to the podium, the opposing teams are saying we're not supposed to be there," Vannelli said. "It was like we were illegitimate."
Reflecting on those comments, Plante said he "likes everything about St. Thomas except the advantages they have" in attracting players from the larger metro area.
Vannelli bristled at the notion.
"Breck, Hermantown, Warroad, Duluth Marshall are the same teams in the Class 1A tournament every year," Vannelli said. "So because St. Thomas happened to win the most out of those schools, does that really make us any different than them?"
The Cadets and Hawks remain two top teams in 1A, and one last state tournament meeting is possible.
Asked whether his team would like to avenge its past two title game losses and send St. Thomas Academy out of the 1A tournament on a losing note, Plante said, "Our incentive couldn't possibly be any higher. Would it feel good? Damn right."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574