The Minnesota Blue Ox entered their state tournament with a 13-7 regular season record, but the Tier I 15O squad came together in impressive fashion to earn a spot in the 2020 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 15O National Championship.
The Blue Ox opened the fall tournament with a 4-2 semifinal win over the Minnesota Green Giants to secure their trip to the state title game against tradition-rich Shattuck-St. Mary’s School on Oct. 13.
Having watched Shattuck-St. Mary’s a number of times throughout the season, Blue Ox coach Roger Mischke knew his team was facing an uphill climb. But his players, who hail mostly in northern Minnesota ranging from Moorhead to Duluth, were up for the task.
“I kind of went into it giving us about a 20 percent chance to win in the back of my mind,” Mischke said. “Just talking to the kids, it’s like, ‘You guys have nothing to lose. We’re just a bunch of kids from up north and you work hard and have fun doing it.’”
The Blue Ox pulled off a stunning 4-3 victory in a shootout to punch their ticket to 2020 Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier I 15O National Championships.
“They were very excited,” Mischke said. “They all know Shattuck. … They get some of the best of the best around the country. [The players] were just like, ‘OK, this is how we play up north.’”
The Blue Ox jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead, then the Sabres went up 3-2 midway through the third, but with just 16 seconds left George Peterson tied it for the Blue Ox, with assists from Thomas Schroeder and Kellen Murphy.
After a scoreless extra session, a five-player shootout was needed to settle the score. Shattuck-St. Mary’s had its first two shooters score, and the Blue Ox had its first three skaters score — Maxwell Roby, Schroeder and Murphy. Blue Ox goalie Brett Holmer then came up big, stopping the final three shootout shots he faced. He poke-checked the puck away from the Sabres’ fifth shooter to secure the victory.
It was a total team effort for the Blue Ox.
“We took away time and space and they were kind of relentless on pucks,” Mischke said. “A couple of their defensemen are pretty highly touted D at 15 years old, and we bounced them a few times. Arms got stronger and the passes got quicker and turnovers happened.”
The Blue Ox were tested all season with nine of its 20 games being decided by one goal. The team was 6-3 in those contests.
Mischke is hoping those tight games will pay dividends at nationals.
“I would think that they know how to play from a lead or knowing that they’re not going to give up if they’re chasing a lead,” Mischke said.
The Blue Ox played consistent all fall season, and that starts from the back end out.
“I think we have a solid defensive core. We have a goaltending tandem that’s pretty good,” Mischke said. “I think at the end of the day, it’s probably balance — the depth and balance of the kids.”
The team’s main goaltender Holmer had a save percentage of .920 and had a goals against average of 2.30.
The Blue Ox’s offense is led by forward Ty Kennett, who is a sophomore at Red Lake Falls. He finished top-10 in the state this season in scoring with 75 points (34 goals, 41 assists).
With the Blue Ox having a split season, the team haven’t played together since that state tournament win in mid-October. Mischke is looking at getting the players united again to practice for nationals.
“I get to see most of these kids throughout the year and you can already see how much they’ve grown,” Mischke said. “I’m really curious to get them back after the season’s done. See how much they’ve learned.”
The second week of March, the Blue Ox squad will head up north of the border to take on the Thunder Bay Kings for three exhibition games in preparation for nationals.
The Blue Ox team went to nationals a couple of years ago, but for this group of players it’s their first time. They will be on the big stage April 1-6 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
“Like I told them, we’re going to make this as much as a fun experience as they’ll ever get,” Mischke said. “Some of these kids may go to the state tournament, some of these kids might be lucky to get to semifinal in a sectional. It might be the biggest thing they ever play in. We just want to make it as first class of an experience for these kids as we can.”
Even though this will be a new experience for all the players, the guys are going in with lofty goals.
“We’ve got expectations to win otherwise we won’t go,” Mischke said. “The first goal is to get through the pool play to play on Saturday, then it’s a one-and-done.
“We booked our flights and we booked our hotels to be there through Monday. I think you give the wrong message if you booked it to come home on Saturday and we’re just going to go play for three games.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.