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Hill-Murray headed back to state after shutout win over Gentry Academy

By Drew Herron, Legacy Hockey, 03/03/23, 9:30PM CST


Unranked Pioneers prevail 3-0 to capture Section 4AA championship for the fourth straight year

Riley Zupfer skates the puck out of the zone in the third period of Friday's Section 4AA championship at Aldrich Arena. Zupfer, an eighth-grader, is averaging nearly a point per game for state tournament-bound Hill-Murray since joining the varsity lineup

When Hill-Murray played in the state tournament for a third straight time last March, Pioneers’ forward Riley Zupfer was there.

Not as the team’s second-line center, as will be what is expected of him later this week. Rather, Zupfer took in the sights, smells, sounds and atmosphere of the Xcel Energy Center from a totally different perspective. 

The then PeeWee AA star watched from the seats as he always had, playing hooky from school for most the week and dreaming about what it might be like to skate on that immaculate ice. On Thursday, Zupfer, an eighth grader at Hill-Murray, will discover firsthand how that feels.

Zupfer scored the Pioneers’ first goal as unranked Hill-Murray skated past Gentry Academy 3-0 in Friday night’s Section 4AA championship on their home ice at Aldrich Arena, propelling the program to the state tournament for the 33rd time in school history.

“I can’t wait,” he said of playing at the Xcel Energy Center. “As a little kid, I’d skip a week of school and go down there to watch hockey games. I watched my brother (Max) win a state championship in 2020, and it’s been a dream ever since.”

Zupfer’s goal was his eighth (and 13th point) in a varsity career that only dates to Jan. 12. 

Zupfer played last year for the Woodbury Youth Hockey Association and Minnesota Made’s Machine. His poise has helped make the jump to varsity hockey look easy. The 14-year-old forward displays uncanny vision and hockey sense, and is learning to use his 5-foot-10, 130-pound frame well enough to get by. 

For Zupfer, it was goodbye Pee Wees, hello high school hockey, and the brutally challenging schedule that comes with playing for one of the metro’s elite programs.

It was an especially difficult jump, as Zupfer skipped playing at the Bantam level, where checking is permitted for the first time. 

“It was a big change,” he said of playing high school hockey. “It was super different as far as the speed and the physicality of it. But once you play in a couple games, you become used to it.”

Zupfer’s dad, Jeff, works on the staff with the junior varsity goaltenders, and is head coach of the school’s soccer team. Max Zupfer played forward for the Pioneers from 2019-2021.

Zupfer started out on JV, then injected into the lineup out of necessity because of injury and illness. Zupfer skates on a line with veteran heavies Ben Miller and Brady Ingebritson.

“We saw in practice that he can handle it,” Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner said. “And the guys respect him, and they like him. That was obvious. He’s playing center on the second line between two guys who’ve been on varsity for four years, and they said ‘Coach, we love the kid, we want him.’ I thought and told them, ‘Well, you guys protect him because he’s a little boy.’ ”

Miller, a 6-foot-2, 185 pound junior forward and Northeastern University commit, missed half the season with injury. He took an instant liking to Zupfer, who he quickly found didn’t play like what he expected from someone a year removed from Pee Wees. 

“The kid is incredibly skilled, and I love playing with him,” Miller said of Zupfer. “We find each other well on the ice, and he understands the game in such a way that I think we compliment each other very well. We help him along with the experience, and he helps us continue to learn new things.”

Zupfer was eased in a bit and given extensive playing time against some less challenging opponents. The coaching staff was delighted when they saw him blossom with time and space to work with, and tally a pair of goals and four points in his second varsity start.

When he matures and becomes stronger, Lechner marvels at what type of player he might have on his hands.

“He’s got that it factor,” Lechner said. “When he becomes a man and gets stronger, he’s going to be really, really good. Here, he’s just starting to grow into it.”

Hill-Murray celebrates with its championship trophy after clinching Section 4AA with Friday night's 3-0 win over Gentry Academy at Aldrich Arena. Photo by Drew Herron,

Quick Recap

MAPLEWOOD - No. 3 seed Hill-Murray defeated No. 4 seed Gentry Academy 3-0 in Friday night’s Section 4AA championship game at Aldrich Arena to earn a fourth straight section title and clinch the program’s 33rd trip to the state tournament.

Riley Zupfer, Lucas Mann and Landon Cottingham all scored for the Pioneers, and senior goaltender Jack Erickson stopped 25 shots to notch his second shutout of the season for unranked Hill-Murray (14-13-2), which needed a lengthy run through the section tournament to bring a winning record into St. Paul this week.

A scoreless first period quickly gave way in the second to a Pioneers’ lead when Zupfer, an eighth-grader, scored on a shot that redirected off a Stars’ defenders’ skates, and into the net just 55 seconds into the period. It gave Hill-Murray the lead, and a spark, as the Pioneers outhustled and outworked their guests the rest of the way. 

It was the 18th straight section championship appearance for Hill-Murray in, a stretch in the Pioneers have gone 14-4. 

Gentry Academy (19-9-0) reached its first Class 2A section final after moving up from Class 1A following the Stars’ small school state championship in 2021.

Anthony Zolezzi stopped 37 shots for Gentry Academy in the loss.

Hill-Murray senior goaltender Jack Erickson stopped 25 shots against Gentry Academy Friday night at Aldrich Arena to record his second shutout of the season. Photo by Drew Herron, Legacy Hockey

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