To a man, Hermantown Hawks boys hockey coaches and players admit they’re counting the days until their Friday, December 1 season and home opener against Class 2A power Wayzata at the luxurious, three-star Hawks’ State Champion Hockey Center. So far in the preseason, it’s been Scrimmage City for our hometown Hawks — sprinkled with a dab of organized confusion dubbed the Lake Superior Conference Jamboree.
Oh ya, expectations for continued success will run high for the defending Minnesota Class 1A champion Hawks, who I have ranked No. 1 in 1A in the preseason.
Will the mighty Hawks defend their coveted state championship under first-year head coach Pat Andrews — and with an untested, first-year senior starter in nets? Who will step up to score in the one-goal games, with the games on the line? Will the Hawks be able to keep the puck out of their own net against top-quality opponents? How (holy electric shaver, Batman!) quickly will the younger, less-varsity experienced Hawks grow their whiskers?
A guess is senior forward Tyler Wakins shaves at least twice-a-day as the team’s franchise player — and, surprisingly, remains an un-committed college prospect who plans to play junior hockey at the end of the current high school season. To be sure, he’s the King Hawk in an elite senior class that also boasts skilled forwards Jacob Herter, Brandon Schmidt, Jake Hausmann and Wyatt Sonneson, steady two-way defenseman Trent Madill and varsity-untested goaltender Austin Hess.
The Hawks made their final roster cuts following home scrimmages last Saturday against Mahtomedi, Champlin Park and Greenway. The current, balanced Hawks’ roster includes seven seniors, 10 juniors and four sophomores, including emerging high school pucks rock star forward Blake Biondi, an elite Bulldogs recruit.
The Hawks will host Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Eastridge and Totino Grace in preseason scrimmages Saturday. Next up is four-line, six-defender deep Wayzata, my 7th-ranked Class 2A team in the preseason and possibly the best team the Hawks will play all season.
“We have another strong team,” the well-spoken, focused Watkins said before Tuesday night’s Superior Conference Jamboree mini-exhibitions against Duluth Marshall, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Duluth Denfeld Tuesday night at Essentia Duluth Heritage Center.
Hermantown again faces a brutally-tough regular-season schedule, and the going appears especially tough to begin the season. Following the Wayzata opener, which promises to be one of the most physical games played by both teams this season, the Hawks will travel to face traditional 2A powers Lakeview South, Eden Prairie and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. A 2-2 start by the Hawks would be acceptable, and a 3-1 or 4-0 record would make home game tickets more difficult to fetch than getting Jello to stick to a tree.
Also during the regular season the Hawks will face 2A No. 5-ranked Minnetonka, No. 13 Cloquet, No. 15 Grand Rapids and No. 16 St. Michael-Albertville, and 1A No. 3 St. Cloud Cathedral and No. 5 Mahtomedi. A 19-6 regular-season record or better is an achievable goal.
Andrews says the Hawks prefer to battle against the elite teams and top players in Minnesota every season. This year’s team will look to create its identity in a hurry, in difficult game situations and in unfriendly road barns.
“Teams are always gunning for us, we get everyone’s best game, and it’s actually fun to be that team,” said Andrews, a former Hermantown top assistant who replaces longtime Hawks coach Bruce Plante, who retired last spring. “Our hockey community expects nothing less than winning a state championship. We have the horses to make another strong run this season.”
Make no mistake: Watkins must carry the team on his broad shoulders, especially early in the season as the young Hawks look to earn their wings.
“Watkins is extremely dangerous offensively, and boasts good speed, a very heavy shot and good quicks,” Andrews said.
Junior defenseman Darian Gotz also is being challenged to step up his game.
“He’s a hard-nosed, gritty defender who plays with a physical edge,” Andrews said of the burly Gotz, who reportedly bench-presses Volkswagons during off-season workouts.
Biondi, a right-handed shooter with acute hockey skills, is an elite high school player, “and unarguably one of the top three sophomores in the state,” Andrews said.
Schmidt is coming off a pair of injuries that limited his play last season and, when healthy, showed great determination and skill while skating on an explosive first line with now-graduated elites Ryan Sandelin and Jesse Jacques.
“Schmidt’s a guy who could explode for a big season,” said Andrews.
Juniors Elliott Peterson and Sam High are top-four defensemen with eye-popping muscles that Popeye wishes he had.
Hess is in a hot seat as an inexperienced starter in goal.
I have Hermantown and Greenway meeting in the Section 7A championship game at The Oil Can (Amsoil), with the Hawks advancing to the 1A state tourney where Nos. 2-3 Alexandria and St. Cloud Cathedral could be pesky foes.
2017-18 Hawks Schedule
Friday, Dec. 1 – Wayzata
Saturday, Dec. 2 – at Lakeville South
Friday, Dec. 8 – at Eden Prairie
Saturday, Dec. 9 – at Benilde-St. Margaret’s
Tuesday, Dec. 12 – at Duluth Marshall
Saturday, Dec. 16 – New Prague
Friday, Dec. 22 – Thief River Falls
Friday, Jan. 5 – St. Cloud Cathedral
Tuesday, Jan. 9 – Grand Rapids
Thursday, Jan. 11 – Duluth Denfeld
Saturday, Jan. 13 – at Minnetonka
Tuesday, Jan. 16 – at Greenway
Saturday, Jan. 20 – St. Michael-Albertville
Tuesday, Jan. 23 – Hibbing
Thursday, Jan. 25 – Proctor
Tuesday, Jan. 30 – at Virginia
Thursday, Feb. 1 – Cloquet
Saturday, Feb. 3 – Mahtomedi
Monday, Feb. 5 – Superior
Friday, Feb. 9 – Eveleth-Gilbert
Saturday, Feb. 10 – Bemidji
Thursday, Feb. 15 – at Grand Rapids
My Class 1A Top-10
3. St. Cloud Cathedral
6. East Grand Forks
7. Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake
8. St. Paul Academy