By Dave Pedersen
Crow River News
The 73rd Minnesota state hockey tournament will finally include Rockford-Delano after the 2-0 shutout against Breck in the title game of the Section 2A tournament.
The first ever state appearance for the program was Wednesday, after this issue went to press, against Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake. The winner takes on No. 3 seed Mahtomedi, 11 a.m. Friday, March 10 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The state title game is noon Saturday, March 11.
Rockford-Delano was given the No. 2 state tournament seed behind defending state champion Hermantown. Not only has Hermantown been to 14 state tournaments in 23 years, it has played in the last seven state title games, winning the last one.
While Rockford-Delano is playing at state for the first time, it has 12 seniors who played together a long time. Several played in three section title games. Plus, R-D led the state in scoring, powered by the top two point getters in Ben Meyers and Brian Halonen.
Not only did Meyers lead the state in scoring with 50 goals and 57 assists for 107 points, but he also led Rockford-Delano in scoring all four of his varsity seasons, playing 111 games. He was named to the six-member Star Tribune All-Metro first team.
Meyers netted 18 goals and 38 points as a ninth-grader, 20 goals and 53 points as a sophomore and 33 goals with 67 points as a junior. Despite his efforts, Meyers had not played at state until now.
“It is definitely a relief to get over that hump and win the section title,” said Meyers. “Our seniors felt it was our last chance at it and we finally broke through. We are definitely a confident team and we expect to win some games at state. I do feel like we have depth with three forward lines and three sets of defenders.”
Meyers, who committed to play in college at Maine University before this season, started the year on a line with seniors Brian Halonen and John Keranen, the other top scorers. The group piled up the points before the line was split up to give Rockford-Delano more depth.
At the section tourney, Meyers played with senior Kyle Ylitalo and ninth-grader Garrett Pinoniemi, who scored the game-winner against Breck. Ylitalo netted the other goal on a power play.
Semi-final win over Blake
Rockford-Delano defeated Blake 5-2 in the section semifinal. Senior Ross Oja netted the first two goals and Meyers scored the next two. Gabe Halonen had the other goal and goalie Jackson Hjelle made 19 saves. Special teams played a big part as Blake was one for seven on the power play.
Second win over Breck
The season started for Rockford-Delano with a 9-0 win over Blake and a 5-2 triumph over Breck, the first ever win over the two-time defending section champ.
R-D was out-shot 28-20 by Breck in the section final, with Hjelle making some spectacular saves. Both teams had two shots bounce off goal posts and both had two power plays.
“The biggest thing for me in the shutout against Breck is we blocked 37 shots,” said coach Gerrit van Bergen. “If you want to win a championship, that’s how you do it. We are so proud the way our players executed the game plan so well for the whole game.”
After getting a good scouting report, van Bergen said Rockford-Delano made a couple key points of emphasis on the penalty kill and against Breck’s offensive attack.
“The leadership and maturity we brought to the section title game was huge with 12 seniors and a lot of juniors,” said van Bergen. “It was the third section title game for several players. It was the sixth playoff game for our junior goaltender.”
Heading to state
The coach said there has been a lot of build up over a number of years for this group of seniors. “So to see them accomplish their goal and have amazing community support, it’s been great and incredibly exciting,” said van Bergen. “Once we hit Wednesday we want to be focused on one thing only, playing the three best hockey games we have all year.”
Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake was 21-6-1, also playing in its first state tournament. It is anticipated R-D will face No. 3 seed Mahtomedi (16-11-1) in the second round Friday.
“Mahtomedi played a really hard schedule,” notes van Bergen. “Their biggest win of the year was to beat Class AA power St. Thomas Academy, also advancing to state. They also played a competitive game against another top AA team in Stillwater, a section runner-up.”
Rockford-Delano was leading Hermantown late in the holiday tournament matchup of the top two teams in the state in December in Duluth. Hermantown rallied to win 4-3.
“We know we can beat Hermantown but we have to take one game at a time,” adds the coach. “We told our players you can go and watch the state tournament the rest of your life, but your chance to go win it is now. This is the team that can do it.”
The other forward lines playing at state are expected to be Keranen, Brian Halonen and Gabe Halonen, who are cousins. Matt Carson plays with Ross Oja and Justin Daly. Defenders are Andrew Kruse, Ray Heikkila, Tanner Glasrud, Nick Schreyer, Jordan Peterson and Mitch Durst. Hjelle will start in goal with Erik Peterson as the backup.
Rockford-Delano (24-3-1) previously defeated two other teams competing at state. St. Cloud Cathedral is 20-6-2 in the Class A tourney and Wayzata is in Class AA as the defending state champ. The other two defeats this season were both against Holy Family, a Class AA team.
Consolation bracket games are at 10 a.m. March 9 at Mariucci Arena (U of M) and 10 a.m. March 11 at Mariucci. The third place game is 9 a.m., March 11 at the Xcel Energy Center.
Assistant coaches are Chad Warner, Ron Guild and Kevin Johnson. Drew Jurek and Aaron Kruse are student managers.