As Blaine’s former strength and conditioning coach, Chris Carroll spent the past half-dozen summers pushing boys’ hockey players out of their comfort zones. This approach followed Carroll, in his first season as Bengals head coach, behind the bench.
Blaine set a modern-day standard for continuity with six consecutive state tournament trips starting in 2006. A shift occurred the past three seasons as talented Bengals teams did not realize their full potential.
Establishing an identity at a program accustomed to success was paramount. Carroll conveyed his expectations in caring and critical ways, creating mental toughness absent in players since the last state tournament trip.
The reward came last week as Blaine won the Class 2A, Section 5 title and earned a place in the state tournament. The No. 4 seed Bengals (22-5-1) open play at 8 p.m. Thursday against No. 5 seed Eden Prairie (18-9).
“When we lost 15 seniors from last year, nobody thought we’d be that good,” Carroll said. “But the guys in that room wanted to be classified as elite so they had to earn it.”
Carroll never let players rest. A rash of Blaine penalties in the Dec. 6 game at Maple Grove showed Carroll wasn’t messing around. Top forwards Riley Tufte and Luke Notermann were ejected for leaving the bench during a third-period dust-up. They were unavailable for the next game against Centennial, and they were not alone.
Five more players were benched for the first period by Carroll, who said their actions against Maple Grove weren’t “who we were.” Shorthanded Blaine trailed 4-0 at the first intermission before roaring back to defeat Centennial 5-4.
The team found its way against a strong schedule, losing to Anoka and Elk River/Zimmerman but beating Eden Prairie and Hill-Murray. A loss at defending Class 1A champion East Grand Forks on Jan. 2 was Blaine’s most recent. The Bengals enter the state tournament on a 16-0-1 run.
“Around the middle of the season we saw all those tough teams like Elk River, Centennial and Benilde-St. Margaret’s,” Tufte said. “We kept on winning, and that gave us a lot of momentum.”
Several players on Blaine’s roster, most notably Tufte and senior Easton Brodzinski, watched older brothers make large contributions to past state tournament teams. Carroll exhorted them to do likewise and they responded. Brodzinski leads the team with 31 goals, just ahead of Tufte and Notermann (27 each).
“He kept on pushing me all season; he’s had a big impact on me,” said Tufte, a 6-foot-4 junior forward committed to Minnesota-Duluth.
“He’s everything,” Brodzinski said of Carroll. “He motivates us. He gets us up every Saturday for practice to get our legs moving. We get a text that says, ‘We’ve got a big game today, get up!’ ”
Other players have emerged under Carroll’s tutelage. Jesse Slawson, often a role player stuck behind a large senior class last season, centers the second line and ranks fourth with 30 points. Alex Penn, Jordan Turnquist and Tanner Vescio each scored goals in Blaine’s 8-1 dismantling of rival Centennial in the section finals.
Carroll, whom former Blaine coach Dave Aus endorsed as his replacement, lifted players’ spirits in the section semifinals. His team trailing upset-minded Maple Grove 1-0 after two periods, Carroll said he “told them I believed in them, because I did.”
“I told them when I got this job in the summer, I wouldn’t trade any single one of them for anybody else on any other team. I knew we had it, we just had to believe.”