Boys hockey: Woodbury 'AA' Bantams pull off upset, punch ticket to state
A late-season injury left John Conlee as the lone goalie for the Woodbury “AA” Bantam boys hockey team heading into the postseason. Before the playoffs began, Conlee sent a text message to his coach Curt Southward that read “don’t worry, I got this covered.”
He did just that.
Conlee and the fifth-seeded Woodbury “AA” Bantams earned a trip to the state tournament by upsetting some of the state’s top teams along the way.
“It’s a big achievement,” said Southward, who is in his 24th year of coaching hockey and third with the “AA” Bantams. “We have a great bunch of kids. We don’t have any superstar players, but we have a lot of good players that play for each other. That’s the coolest part of this group.”
At the East Regional, held Feb. 28-March 2 at Cottage Grove Ice Arena, Woodbury edged fourth-seeded St. Michael-Albertville 4-3 in the first round, topped No. 1 seed Elk River 3-2 in the semifinals and beat third-seeded Minnetonka 1-0 in overtime in the championship.
Woodbury had lost to St. Michael twice during the regular season, Elk River was ranked as one of the top three teams in the state all year and Minnetonka was a top-10 team in the state this season.
The Woodbury “AA” Bantams, which are comprised of 14- to 15-year-old players from Woodbury who go to Woodbury, East Ridge and Cretin-Derham Hall high schools, play in the top tier of Bantam teams in the state.
Woodbury’s top Bantam team most recently reached the state tournament in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Woodbury won the state championship in 09-10 and was runner-up the following season.
For the postseason, Minnesota Hockey ranked the top 24 teams and placed them into four regions. After taking third in the district in the regular season and second at the end-of-the-year district tournament, Woodbury was selected as the fifth seed in the eight-team East Region. Southward said his team was plagued by injuries early in the season, which started in October, but they kept things fun and loose and put it all together at the right time.
Southward said the team began playing well in January and February and went from a team on the bubble of being picked for the postseason to earning the No. 5, middle-of-the-road seed in the regional.
“We had some guys who understood what it took,” said Southward, who is making his fourth trip to state, but first with the “AA” Bantams. “They realized this was their last shot to do anything as a Bantam. After this they all go on to high school. This was their last chance being together and making some noise. We got some great leadership, especially from our captains.”
Woodbury opened the East Regional with a 4-3 win over St. Michael-Albertville on Friday, Feb. 28. Scoring for Woodbury in the win was Jimmy Hearon, Ben Wahlin, Tucker Kruse and Jack English. The victory earned Woodbury a date with the favorite, Elk River. Tied 2-2 late in the third period, Woodbury killed off an Elk River powerplay, then beat the Elks as Alex Stuckert delivered the game-winner off a pass from Carter VanDenEinde.
“I want to say it was a beautiful drawn-up play, but it was just a shot from the point that eluded the goalie and we won it,” Southward said. “Those guys were in the top three, if not at the top spot, all year.”
The win moved Woodbury onto the title game. After regulation the teams were tied 0-0. However, Woodbury’s Wahlin scored the game-winning goal in overtime on assists by Kruse and English.
Conlee, who earned the shutout in the win, played every game for Woodbury in the district tournament and regional tournament. The team’s other goalie, Nick Stearns, couldn’t play because of a broken hand. Woodbury brought up a goalie, Harrison Millington, from the ‘B’ Bantams as a backup.
“We had to put a lot of pressure on Conlee and he was huge for us,” Southward said. “Elk River won a lot of games with a lot of offense. That game and the St. Michael game – he basically stole that game for us. Both weekends, he was just great for us.”
Woodbury will now face Grand Rapids in the opening round of the state tournament, on Friday, March 14, in Rogers.
“We’re going to be the underdog,” Southward said. “I’m sure teams are wondering if we have anything left or if we can do it again. Nobody thought we could get this far.”