Teams are returning to conference play, starting the march toward tournament time.
Fresh off holiday tournaments, Minnesota’s high school basketball and hockey teams shift into high gear this week. Here are some noteworthy developments to know before the seasons race by and it’s playoff time:
Climb to the top: Vernon Simmons has turned St. Paul Johnson’s program into a perennial power, but this season’s team even has exceeded his expectations through its first dozen games. The Class 3A, No. 1 Governors enter St. Paul City Conference play with a 10-2 record. Their only setback to a Minnesota school was 78-69 to Class 4A, No. 2 Hopkins.
“I thought it would take us about half the season to get up to speed,” said Simmons, who has guided the program to eight state tournament trips since 2004. “I was wrong. The kids came out playing well right at the start of the season.”
Four players are averaging double figures in scoring, led by senior forward Peirre Conwell (16.9 points per game) and junior guard Jalen Mobley (15.5 points per game).
“They have done a good job of getting our other players involved,” Simmons said.
Scoring machine: Lakeville North senior forward J.P. Macura has taken his game to en even higher level in 2013-14. The Xavier recruit is averaging 35 points per game through the Panthers’ first 10 games. Lakeville North is 9-1 and ranked No. 3 in Class 4A. Macura scored a career-high 55 in a 104-99 victory at Farmington. He has scored at least 30 points in six games.
Mending before defending: Two-time defending Class 3A state champion DeLaSalle (5-3) continues to be without senior forward Reid Travis. The Stanford recruit has been sidelined because of a stress fracture in his left foot since August. He hopes to resume playing in the next couple of weeks.
Getting healthy: Hopkins, the three-time Class 4A defending state champion, already has as many losses (two) this season as any of the previous three years. The Royals lost two games in 2010-11, and only once each of the past two years.
The Royals (10-2) lost back-to-back games to Eastview and Lakeville North in mid-December, but were missing junior guard T’Aire Starks, their top player. She has been gradually working her way back from surgery on her left shoulder. She scored 10 points in her most recent outing despite limited playing time.
“She has an incredibly high basketball IQ,” coach Brian Cosgriff said. “She is a relentless worker, and a winner.”
Freshman forward Jazmyn Martin missed two games early in the season while sophomore guard Nia Hollie (knee bursitis) and junior guard Viria Livingston (ACL surgery last season) are trying to return to 100 percent.
“We’ve been pretty banged up,” Cosgriff said. “We’re just starting to get healthy.”
Plenty of offense, no defense: Waconia is on pace to become the highest-scoring team (92.4 points per game) in state history. The Wildcats (5-6) have eclipsed 100 points three times, while their opponents have reached the century mark on four occasions. St. Paul Central averaged 85.4 points per game during the 2006-07 season. Waconia is giving up 89.9 points per game, which also would be a state record.
Return is near: Tartan has been playing without senior guard Tia Elbert, who is averaging 33.2 points per game. She opened the season playing with a high ankle sprain, then took time off to try to let the injury heal. Elbert, who has missed the past three games, is expected to be back in the lineup next week for the Titans (2-7).
Dark horse galloping: With enduring hockey powers Edina, Hill-Murray and Blaine making the No. 1 ranking in Class 2A a game of musical chairs this season, you might have missed Lakeville North’s charge into the top 10.
The 10th-ranked Panthers take a 7-0-1 unbeaten streak into Tuesday night’s game at Eagan. They tied No. 4 Blaine 3-3 at the St. Louis Park Holiday Classic tournament and stunned No. 2 Hill-Murray with a 3-0 victory on Jan. 4.
The keys to Lakeville North’s success? Good goaltending and the ability to close out games. Freshman goaltender Jake Oettinger stopped 34 shots to blank Hill-Murray. And the Panthers have outscored opponents 21-9 in the third period.
Section 6 looks mortal: The state’s toughest section in recent seasons, Class 2A, Section 6, lacks its usual prestige. No. 6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s can score but struggles to keep opponents off the scoreboard. No. 7 Eden Prairie lacks depth to supplement some high-end players. Minnetonka disappeared from the top-20 rankings. The favorites right now are No. 3 Wayzata, which defends well and scores in the tough areas. And watch No. 17 Holy Family Catholic, which lost star power but emerged with more balanced scoring.
Goal-getters: White Bear Lake junior Jake Wahlin ranks second in the state and first in the metro area with 22 goals, ahead of Forest Lake’s Brett Gravelle (20), Benilde-St. Margaret’s Spencer Naas (19) and Trey Rooney (18) of Robbinsdale Cooper.
West is the best: Minnetonka defeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the Class 2A, Section 6 final in the past three seasons en route to an unprecedented three consecutive state championships. The emergence of Wayzata and Hopkins, however, makes another section final meeting no sure thing. The four teams began this week with a combined five losses and held the top four spots in the rankings.
No. 1 Minnetonka once again relies on defense and goaltending. Defenseman Sydney Baldwin, who committed to the Gophers, leads a group of three Division I-bound players. No. 2 Wayzata wins with a no-star and no-quit approach while No. 3 Hopkins boasts three players (goaltender Erin O’Neil, defenseman Grace Bizal and forward Nina Rodgers) invited to the Under-18 nation team tryouts. No. 4 Benilde- St. Margaret’s, boasting six Division I players, won its past nine games.
Stepping outside: Minnetonka and Eden Prairie will play the first outdoor high school hockey game on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Puck drops at 10 a.m. as part of the High School Hockey Faceoff. The Lake Conference rivals will be followed by four boys’ games.
Roster shake-up: Christi Vetter and younger sister Brianna left the Lakeville North program, said Panthers coach Buck Kochevar, who declined further comment. Christi had signed to play at Penn State. Both sisters joined the Nordic skiing team.
DAVID LA VAQUE