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Prep boys hockey: Hermantown to use JV in state quarterfinal after COVID-19 sidelines varsity

The Hawks are seeded No. 1 heading into the tourney.

Zam Plante handles the puck during the first period of the last game he played in, a home game against Duluth East on March 8, 2021. Plante will return for the Class A state quarterfinal game against Dodge County, though most of the varsity team has been sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
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DULUTH -- Zam Plante went from wondering whether he could play in Hermantown’s Class A state tournament boys hockey quarterfinal to now carrying the load for the top-seeded Hawks.

Due to a positive COVID-19 test on the Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl team — Hermantown’s opponent in the Section 7A semifinals — the majority of the Hawks will not play in Tuesday’s game against unseeded Dodge County at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

“Anybody who stepped foot on that ice (against VMIB) for more than a minute has to be out,” Hawks coach Patrick Andrews said.

Instead, Hermantown (19-1) will line up Plante, a sophomore who has not played since injuring a shoulder March 8, and a bunch of junior varsity players — including one, Zach Pruse, who was flying back late Monday from an abbreviated spring break in Florida — against the Section 1-champion Wildcats (17-3-1), a heavy underdog under normal circumstances to the three-time state titlists.

“He goes from not knowing if he was going to play to being the guy,” Andrews said of Plante, who has a team-high 58 points and has been cleared to play. “He’s always the guy that draws people to him, but he’s literally the guy now.”

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Whether Hermantown can advance to the semifinals for the 11th time in the past 12 years is left in the hands of inexperienced players.

“The JV boys are fired up; they’re ready to go to war,” said Plante, who played with several of the JV players while on Hermantown’s bantam team. “We’ve done a good job of staying clear all year, other than when our JV team got quarantined. We’ve been doing a good job of staying out of it until now.”

Ironically, the JV team last played March 11 against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton when that game was shut down after one period when word emanated about a positive test on the Duluth East JV, which Hermantown had played days earlier.

“We were in the middle of the JV game when I got a call from my athletic director that we had to shut the game down,” Andrews said.

The JV season ended, and players quarantined for a specific period. Now they get to lace up their skates again.

“We have a very good (JV) program,” Andrews said. “We’re a team from one to 36. Our goal every year is to find the best 20; we just didn’t think this would be our top 20 going down to St. Paul. But we’ve always treated our JV and varsity as one team.”

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If Hermantown wins, varsity players could be eligible for Friday’s semifinal against either Little Falls or Delano. Players have lined up coronavirus tests for Thursday, and, if they test negative, they would be allowed to play, Andrews and Plante said. Hermantown activities director Beth Clark did not return a call seeking comment.

“We are obviously disappointed some of our student-athletes are missing out on this opportunity,” a release sent out by the Hermantown administration said. “We will work collaboratively with and within the regulations set by the (Minnesota State High School League) and (Minnesota Department of Health) as the state tournament moves forward.”

Backup goaltender Cole Thorsvik, who hasn’t allowed a goal in three starts, will get the nod in net. Cameron Pietrusa, another varsity athlete who has been out with an injured shoulder, also will play.

Andrews said seniors such as defenseman Joey Pierce, a Mr. Hockey finalist who returned for his senior season specifically to win a state title, and other veterans who suffered heartbreak by losing last year’s championship game in overtime, remained positive when hearing the news.

“It was a horrible conversation to have today; I feel for them,” Andrews said. “They’ve all sacrificed so much to come back and worked so hard to make this happen. At the same time, they are pulling for our guys, and they know they can do this. They know their teammates can win without them, and if they can, there’s a chance we can still (win a title).”

Plante and Andrews both relayed Pierce’s comments to the team.

“He said, ‘We all have faith in you, and this is your chance to step up and keep our state championship hopes alive,’” Andrews said.

That’s the attitude of the coaching staff as well.

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“It’s a hockey game at the end of the day, and we’re going to go compete our butts off,” Andrews said. “We still expect to win.”

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