by Mark Lauer – firstname.lastname@example.org
When you’re driving through St. Paul, it doesn’t take very long to realize what takes center stage in Minnesota. It seems no matter which direction you look, especially if you’re anywhere near the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild, you are always reminded you are in the “State of Hockey.”
If St. Paul had an official seal, it would probably feature a pair of crossed hockey sticks positioned over a large, slow-moving zamboni machine. (And if you don’t know what a zamboni is, you’re in the wrong place.)
Many kids in Minnesota grow up with dreams that someday they’ll take the ice at Xcel Energy Center, playing for their school in what many feel is the grandest spectacle of any high-school sport – the Minnesota State Boys High School Hockey Tournament.
St. Cloud Apollo’s hockey program originated in 1972. But for the kids who have worn the Eagles’ red, white and blue sweaters, nearly all of those 40 seasons have ended with unfulfilled dreams – and no trip to St. Paul.
Apollo’s only appearance in the tournament happened in 1984.
If you look up toward the rafters of the Municipal Athletic Complex, which is home ice for all three St. Cloud high schools (Apollo, St. Cloud Tech and St. Cloud Cathedral), you can see banners honoring the championship teams of the intercity rivals. During the 1970s and 80s many of those banners were won by Apollo teams.
Eagles’ Coach Pete Matanich used those banners to give this year’s team something to aim for.
“I told them to look up at those banners and imagine what it would be like to have their own up there,” Matanich said. “It would be something they could tell their own kids about, or talk about at class reunions someday.”
Matanich, a 1997 graduate of Apollo, played on an Eagles squad that posted a 20-3 record during his senior season and made a bid at qualifying for state. But that team fell short, losing to a strong Moorhead team in the sectionals.
The school record for wins in one season was set in its first season in the Central Lakes Conference, 1977-78, when Apollo put together a 21-3 season and a share of the conference title with Elk River. That season also ended in defeat in the section semifinals, 7-3 at the hands of Duluth East.
This year, though, something different happened.
Apollo, featuring only four seniors on its roster, put together its best season since 2001-02, finishing the regular season with a record of 15-10 before winning three straight playoff games to win the Section 6A title and earning the right to appear on the big stage in St. Paul. Their first-round opponent at the state tourney would be two-time defending Class A champion St. Thomas Academy.
Most everyone knows what happened next.
St. Thomas Academy, which would eventually win its third consecutive Class A state title, put on a display for the fans at Xcel Energy Center in the opening-round game, shutting out Apollo, 12-0. The game was decided early, with the Cadets opening a 4-0 lead after the first period and then opening the gap to 9-0 after two periods. Incredibly, St. Thomas outshot Apollo 50-3 in the game which began with a contingent of STA fans chanting “This one’s over” shortly after the opening faceoff.
“I felt bad for the kids, but they never gave up,” Matanich said. “They kept playing hard and gave it all they had the whole game. A lot of times when a game gets lopsided it’s easy for the team that’s losing to get frustrated. But they never got cheap, they played with class and afterward I told them they could still hold their heads high.”
According to Matanich, who completed his fourth year as Apollo head coach, even a one-sided defeat at a state tournament can prove beneficial, although not always right away.
“An experience like that kind of molds you for what comes next,” he said.
It was up to Apollo to shake off the first-round drubbing and regroup for their consolation bracket game against Rochester Lourdes. In this game the Eagles played much better, holding a one-goal lead a couple of times. But Lourdes scored two goals late in the third period to take a 6-4 victory, ending Apollo’s season.
According to their coach, it wasn’t that hard for the Eagles to regroup for Lourdes after the messy opening-round loss to St. Thomas Academy.
“We just tried to remind them of why they were here (at the tournament), and that they were representing our school,” Matanich noted.
The 2012-13 season was marked by some early wins followed by inconsistent play on other occasions. It wasn’t until mid-January when the Eagles began to come together as a complete team and started playing more consistent, winning hockey. The improvement showed in wins over teams like Fergus Falls and Alexandria, along with some solid efforts in a couple of one-goal losses to always-tough Brainerd.
“The team really jelled together about that time,” Matanich said. “You could just see they had a different demeanor, they felt like they could compete with anybody.”
The Eagles roster had just four seniors: defensemen Brandon Bloch and Jordan Keller, and forwards Erik Jarosch and Jared Christen. The four of them brought different qualities to the table for Apollo. Christen tended to “lead by example” according to Matanich, and also finished the season as the team’s leading scorer with 45 goals (a school record) and 39 assists. Bloch, a St. Joseph resident, was one of the team’s top defensemen and also a more vocal leader, as was Jarosch from his forward position. Keller displayed exceptional skills as a defenseman while also being a motivator for his teammates.
Apollo’s top goaltender this season was a freshman, Nick Althaus, who posted an 18-9-0 record as a ninth-grader, and had a save percentage of .871.
The 2012-13 season marked the first winning year for Apollo since 2001-02 when the Eagles finished with a record of 19-7-0.