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Spuds make slow start a distant memory on journey to state hockey tournament

With 'tremendous growth in a short time' Moorhead boys hockey team has caught fire late in the season, riding a six-game winning streak into the Minnesota Class 2A Boys State Hockey Tournament

Moorhead's Max Dronen celebrates his goal against STMA during their Class 2A, Section 8 boys hockey semifinal game Saturday, March 20, 2021, at the Moorhead Sports Center. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

MOORHEAD — At the start of the season, it looked like the Moorhead boys hockey team’s streak of 20 consecutive section finals appearances might be in jeopardy. They had a long way to go if they wanted to make the program's 18th state tournament appearance.

The Spuds returned just one player with a full season of varsity experience and just a handful with any varsity minutes at all. Of the 111 goals they scored in the 2019-20 season, just 10 of them returned for the 2020-21 campaign. They lost a Mr. Hockey award finalist defenseman and a Frank Brimsek award-winning goalie.

As expected, with so many accomplished players replaced by young and inexperienced players, the Spuds started slow. They went 1-3-1 in their first five games and struggled to score, grinding and fighting for every goal.

That slow start is now a distant memory.

The Spuds got comfortable at the varsity level and improved greatly as the season progressed. They caught fire, winning six straight games on the way to a Class 2A, Section 8 championship and a berth in the Minnesota Class 2A state boys hockey tournament.


Unseeded Moorhead (13-7-1) plays undefeated No. 3 seed Lakeville South (18-0-2) in the state quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

“Usually the beginning of the season is tough for a young team,” Moorhead senior captain Max Dronen said. “Everybody is trying to find their role. We were trying to find our roles and jell. We came to work every day and we kept getting better.”

Spuds coach Jon Ammerman knew from the beginning of the season that his team had the talent and skill to compete this year. It was just a matter of how quickly his players could learn and adjust to the varsity level. They didn’t have much time.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of the hockey season was delayed from November to Jan. 4. They had just 12 days from the first day of practice to the season-opener against Grand Rapids. Their regular season was reduced from a normal 24-game season to 18 games.

The Spuds had to learn fast, and they did.

“We knew there was enough talent for sure to compete for a section title,” Ammerman said. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in a short time, especially with our young players. I think some of the older guys bought into their role. That’s key on a team.”

Moorhead went from grinding and fighting for every goal at the start of the season, to scoring goals in bunches in their late-season hot streak. They scored four goals in 84 seconds in an 8-1 win over St. Michael-Albertville in the section semifinals, and scored three goals in the third period of a 5-1 win over Roseau in the section championship game.

Everybody got in on the act. Fourteen different players recorded a point for the Spuds during the section tournament. Eight of the nine players on the top three forward lines scored goals in that time as well as both members of the first defensive pairing — Luke Leonard and Joe Gramer. Leonard’s goal, his first at the varsity level, won the section quarterfinal game against Bemidji in overtime.


The second line of junior center Gavin Lindberg, junior left wing Carson Triggs, and sophomore right wing Ian Ness stepped up big down the stretch and into the first game of the playoffs. They accounted for two goals in each of the Spuds final two regular season contests and the section quarterfinal.

The third forward line of junior center Justin Stalboerger, junior right wing Thomas Schroeder, and junior left wing Cody Martinson was big in the section semifinal blowout of STMA, registering four goals in the game.

And the first line of senior center Dronen, sophomore right wing Harper Bentz, and sophomore left wing Aaron Reierson exploded for four goals in the section championship win over Roseau.

Eight Spuds have double-digit point totals, led by Dronen’s 24 (10 goals, 14 assists) and Bentz’ 23 (13 goals, 10 assists).

“I think we’re all buying in and playing a team game,” Bentz said. “We’ve come a long way. We were a young team and we caught up to the speed of the game and started playing good hockey.”

On top of the goal scoring, Moorhead has gotten top-tier play out of senior goalie Will Kunka. Kunka relies heavily on his spectacular glove to keep shots out of the net. If his glove can get to it, it probably will.

The goalie kicked off the Spuds’ current six-game winning streak with back-to-back shutouts against Minnetonka and St. Michael-Albertville. He has allowed just five goals during the winning streak, stopping 143-of-148 shots, good for a 0.966 save percentage and a 0.833 goals against average in that stretch. For the season, Kunka has a 0.933 save percentage and 1.87 goals against average. His save percentage ranks seventh in the state.

Those numbers are right on par with last year’s Spuds goalie Hudson Hodges, who won the Frank Brimsek award as the best senior goalie in the state. Hodges had a 0.922 save percentage and 2.08 goals against last season.


Kunka and Dronen, along with Leonard, Grant Frisch, Jackson Score, Jonas Spicer and Tyler Swanson, form a Spuds senior class that will close out its varsity career at the state tournament. They’re a group that had to wait their turn for varsity minutes and embraced their roles.

“Our seniors have been huge for us this season,” Ammerman said. “Will Kunka has made a lot of very nice saves. Luke Leonard and Jonas Spicer have done a very nice job. Grant Frisch has made some important plays.

“Some of the older guys bought into their role. That’s key on a team. I think we’ve had some older guys that haven’t played as many minutes as they would have hoped, and they dug into their roles and competed, and they’ve done a great job of being leaders.”

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