Cougars secure first state tourney berth in 5 years

South draws STA in Class AA hockey quarterfinals

Isaiah DiLaura makes a save during Lakeville South's 3-1 victory over Lakeville North in the Section 1AA championship game. Photo by Jim Lindquist/sidekick.smugmug.com
Isaiah DiLaura makes a save during Lakeville South’s 3-1 victory over Lakeville North in the Section 1AA championship game. Photo by Jim Lindquist/sidekick.smugmug.com

If you look strictly at section seedings, Lakeville South was one of the teams that rode a wave of upsets into the state boys hockey tournament.

The Cougars don’t quite see it that way, however. To them, the state tournament is an opportunity – to raise awareness of South hockey, to build enthusiasm and to maintain a pattern of success that is emerging at several levels.

“We believe we can do some damage there and we’re excited for it,” said A.J. Bucchino, who’s in his second year as the Cougars’ head coach. “Our Bantam AA and Pee Wee AA teams are also going to state. Any time a team makes it to state, the community’s excited. You’re one of the top eight teams left. It works wonders.

“People are believing. They’re buying into the system and they believe we can win together.”

Lakeville South defeated Lakeville North 3-1 in the Section 1AA championship game March 2 in Rochester behind two third-period goals by Brad Golant and 25 saves by Isaiah DiLaura. The Cougars (18-9-1) are one of five teams that weren’t seeded first in their sections to qualify for the Class AA state tourney that begins Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. South plays No. 2-seeded St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1) in the first quarterfinal game at 11 a.m. Eden Prairie, which is in the opposite half of the bracket, is the No. 1 seed.

It’s the first time in five years Lakeville South has been to the state tournament, but the last time the Cougars were there seeds didn’t matter much. They upset No. 1-seeded Duluth East in the Class AA quarterfinals in 2012 and went on to third place.

Thursday’s early wakeup call might help the Cougars, senior defenseman Josh Ess said.

“Playing at night might be harder because we’d be sitting around all day,” said Ess, who will play college hockey at Wisconsin. “It’s kind of nice to get out there early and get moving.”

One reason the Cougars have nine losses is they haven’t ducked strong teams. They played non-conference games against state powers such as Stillwater, Hermantown, Holy Family and Breck in addition to two games against South Suburban Conference champion Prior Lake and three against Lakeville North, the top seed in Section 1AA. They lost twice to Prior Lake in overtime and had one overtime loss against North during the regular season.

But along the way, Bucchino noticed a shift in the locker room’s mood.

“Guys were holding each other accountable, taking responsibility. The energy was different in the room and on the ice,” the coach said. “I just felt everybody was trusting each other to do their job, and it seemed to work.”

Lakeville South senior forward Bradley Golant scored two goals in the third period of the Section 1AA championship game, leading the Cougars to a 3-1 victory over Lakeville North. Photo by Jim Lindquist/sidekick.smugmug.com
Lakeville South senior forward Bradley Golant scored two goals in the third period of the Section 1AA championship game, leading the Cougars to a 3-1 victory over Lakeville North. Photo by Jim Lindquist/sidekick.smugmug.com

On the ice, “we’ve been getting a lot of shots on net and crashing the net,” said senior forward William Moore.

The Cougars had 34 shots on goal against Lakeville North, breaking a 1-1 tie when Golant, a senior forward, scored twice in the first 5 minutes, 22 seconds of the third period. Jake Oelrich scored in the first minute of the second period to give South a 1-0 lead.

Chaz Dufon tied the game for Lakeville North (20-6-2) in the second period but the Panthers, the 2015 state Class AA champions, couldn’t hold off South in the third.

“We’ve been waiting for that moment our whole lives,” Moore said. “We just wanted it, and it finally came true.”

The Cougars want to do more than make an appearance at state. After looking at video of St. Thomas Academy games, they think they match up well against the Cadets.

“They’re a fast team. They seem to get up and down the ice pretty quick,” Bucchino said. “They have skilled players, so they like to get the puck to the net as fast as possible. We feel we have the same speed, with a strong goalie and a strong blue line. If our forwards are disciplined without the puck, we have a good chance to win the game.”

Players such as Ess, Sam Malinski and Jack Olsen give the Cougars strength on defense. They also are three of the team’s top five scorers. And, “our forwards are producing across the board. All three lines are on the scoresheet almost every game,” Bucchino said.

Ess said he believes the Cougars have the attributes of a team that can win games in the state tournament.

“We’re pretty physical, we get pucks on net and we have a good work ethic,” he said. “And we have some skill mixed in there. All around, we’re pretty solid.”

The Lakeville South-St. Thomas Academy winner plays Moorhead or Hill-Murray in the Class AA semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday. For the Cougars to get there, they will have to be on their game from the start Thursday morning – and they’ll have to shut out distractions, at least to the extent that is possible at the state tournament.

“We’ve talked about focusing on the task at hand – why we’re here, what got us here, what is our team goal. Let’s not lose track that it’s about the hockey,” Bucchino said. “We need a good start. If we have a great first five minutes and we’re physical and guys are getting a lot of shots, you’ll hear a lot of cheering on our bench. It carries over the next shift, and the next.”