When St. Thomas Academy hockey coach Greg Vannelli talks about last year’s state tournament, he doesn’t express a lot of disappointment in his team’s opening-round loss to Lakeville South. The way he looks at it, the state tournament is full of great teams, and anyone can lose if they don’t play their best.
Vannelli prefers to focus on the next two games, when the Cadets outscored Hill-Murray and Wayzata by a combined 9-0 to win the Class 2A consolation championship.
“The fact that we ended with two wins and the consolation championship helps with the guys coming back,” said Vannelli, who has co-coached the Cadets with his brother Tom Vannelli the past 15 years. “We got a look at the guys who played well in those last two games and those are the guys who are doing well this year. It’s nice to get those two wins and then go from there.”
Twelve regulars are back from last year’s 25-5-1 squad and have led the Cadets to a 4-1 start and a No. 4 ranking in Class 2A. Those returning players are driven to carry on the tradition of a program that has won five state titles and reached the state tournament nine times since 2005.
“Everyone just buys in and focuses on that one goal of getting to St. Paul and continuing the hockey excellence at St. Thomas,” said senior captain Ray Christy, the top returning scorer from last year’s team. “We have a lot of guys who are motivated to make it to state and make a good run at winning state.”
Christy heads up a group of eight returning forwards who have helped the Cadets score 24 goals in their first five games. Christy, fellow senior Payton Matsui and junior Brendan McFadden have each scored nine points already. Juniors Rob Christy, Ray’s brother, Luke Herzog, Ben Stucker, Nico Vega and Ryan O’Neill round out a deep group of scorers.
“We have three lines that can score. If one line is not having a good night or is a little off, they’re able to pick each other up,” Vannelli said. “It’s a very tenacious group, very gritty. They work really hard and they’re competitive, so you don’t have to do much to motivate them. They always come ready to play.”
The Cadets also generate some offense through their defense. Senior captain and defenseman Chase Foley scored 23 points last season and runs the team’s power play. Another senior, Blake Holmes, is a more physical defenseman but still scored 14 points last season.
“The defensive coaches always tell us that everything starts with the defensive zone and everything else will take care of itself,” Foley said. “We have to be solid and hopefully the forwards will put the puck in the net, and they always do.”
Thanks to goaltender Atticus Kelly, putting the puck in the net hasn’t been as easy for St. Thomas Academy’s opponents the past two years. The senior enters his third year as the Cadets’ starter, coming off a junior season in which he posted a 15-3-1 record, a 1.22 goals-against-average and a .932 save percentage. He turned in his fifth shutout of the season in the Cadets’ 5-0 consolation championship game victory over Wayzata.
“He’s 6-3, so he has range and takes up a lot of the net. He uses his size well,” Vannelli said. “He’s in his third year playing for us and he’s played two years in the Elite league, so he’s pretty seasoned.”
The same could be said for the St. Thomas Academy program. The Cadets have a roster of players who have proven they can compete with the state’s best and a coaching staff that has five state titles to its credit.
“Because we’ve been doing this 15 years together, we kind of have it down pretty good where the guys need to be successful,” Vannelli said. “The players believe they can get there because of that success, but we don’t really talk about it. We talk about working on all the little things and they always seem to add up at the end.”