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Rise of the Underdogs

By Dain Solberg, Legacy Hockey, 02/13/24, 7:15PM CST


Two Rivers one of several teams from around the state to make history this season with improbable wins

Two Rivers senior Will Auran, far left, and his teammates made history with their 3-2 overtime victory over Hill-Murray on Jan. 6, notching their first win over the Pioneers in school history. Photo by Liz Westerhaus Photography

Overjoyed players in red jerseys raced to the corner to swarm Two Rivers goaltender Brady Altier. At the other end of the ice was the agony of defeat, as dejected Hill-Murray players took a knee, waiting for the Warriors’ celebration to conclude.

Two Rivers had just defeated Hill-Murray 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 6 at Aldrich Arena. It was the first time the Warriors had ever defeated the mighty Pioneers, halting a 53-year, 34-game losing streak.

Altier, a senior, described the celebration as if it were a mosh pit on the ice.

“I skated out to the corner, and we all jumped on each other,” he said, “I think we were more surprised than coach (Brandon) Ferraro was at that point.

“When we scored, I looked up from my stance and saw a sea of red barreling toward me.”

The first game between the schools was in 1978. The Pioneers defeated the Warriors in that game and in the second matchup, in 1983. They both competed in the old Classic Suburban Conference and, more recently, the Metro East. Hill-Murray slipped past Two Rivers 1-0 last season in the teams’ only meeting, but the Pioneers had no reason to believe their 34-game win streak would end heading into that Jan. 6 meeting at the Pioneers’ home rink.

Two Rivers might as well have won the state championship, based on the atmosphere in the locker room and during the ride home after their monumental victory. 

“In the locker room we were pumped,” said senior forward Will Auran, who scored the winner 4:21 into the extra session. “We talked about how we never thought this had been done. The boys played music louder than it should have been on the bus ride home. We were all ecstatic.” 

The win was a high point so far of what has been a banner year for the Warriors, who sit with a 17-6-0 overall record and a 8-2-0 mark in the Metro East, good for a tie for second place.

“This win meant not only a lot to this year’s team; it meant a lot to the entire Two Rivers community and Mendota Heights area,” Ferraro said. “When you make a statement by beating a team like Hill-Murray, the younger kids look up to our players like they are celebrities.”

Ferraro praised his team and how it came into Aldrich Arena with no fear.

“You have to have the 'why not us' mentality when you play a team like Hill-Murray, who has a tradition of excellence,” Ferraro said.

Hill-Murray has made the state tournament 33 times, claiming four championships. Two Rivers, formerly known as Henry Sibley High School before the name was changed in 2021, has made eight trips to the state tournament since the 1972-73 season but none since 1997. The Warriors have never won a state title.

Two Rivers players were, understandably, jumping for joy when they took an early 2-0 lead. 

“When we scored the second goal of the game, I thought to myself it would be great if we could get out of here with a tie, let alone put them away,” Ferraro said.

Historical wins like Two Rivers’ (the Warriors had been outscored 84-6 by the Pioneers since 2013) and the celebratory aftermath have played out at rinks around the state this season. At least four other teams have recorded exceedingly rare or never-before wins that will be etched in record books. Those outcomes have included:

Dec 12 and Jan 16: Ely defeats International Falls 3-2 and 4-2, the first time the Timberwolves have swept the Broncos. Ely was 1-68-0 against International Falls before this season.

Dec. 21 and Feb. 3: Shakopee over Lakeville South 7-5 and 3-1. The Sabers’ first two wins over the Cougars in the history of the teams’ series. Shakopee was 0-15 against Lakeville South entering this season, having been outscored 107-20.

Dec. 27, Feb. 1, Feb. 3: La Crescent over Albert Lea, South St. Paul and St. Paul Academy. The Lancers, who were a combined 0-19-0 against those three semi-regular opponents, won the three games by a combined 12-2.

Jan 13: Park over Cretin-Derham Hall 3-2 in what is believed by coaches and former players on both sides to be the Wolfpack’s first win over the Raiders in at least the last two decades, if not the only win for Park in the history of the series.

Two Rivers is one of several teams this season to earn rare or never-before wins over longtime opponents. Photo by Liz Westerhaus Photography

“Cities and towns often change after wins like these, and I believe that the Ely community has gotten behind the hockey program now after that win,” Ely coach Jake Myers said. “When you beat premier programs, it helps the youth programs. The kids want to be like the older guys and wear the high school jersey.”

Myers, a 2014 graduate of Hopkins High School, said Ely’s victories over International Falls reminded him of when the Royals, most years a bottom feeder in the talent-laden Lake Conference, knocked off three-time state champion Eden Prairie during his playing days.

Coaches say the trend of history-making victories has its roots in good goaltending, summer training programs and players overlooking teams because of their perceived lack of talent.

Andover head coach Mark Manney, who has helped build the Huskies into a perennial state tournament qualifier (and state Class 2A champion in 2022), has seen his teams go from underdogs to favorites over the years. He named five more reasons for the surprising outcomes.

  • All teams can skate. Players have virtually unlimited access to individual and group training, specializing in all aspects of the game.

  • Underdog teams get up for games every night (Super Bowl mentality).

  • The ability to shut down one top line. Focusing on stopping a top unit can create low-scoring, get-a-good-bounce-and-win games.

  • Top teams being plagued with injuries. More parity means one or two key injuries can turn expected blowouts into 50-50 propositions.

  • The will to beat a rival. Emotions run high in rivalry games, so much so that any outcome is possible no matter the disparity in talent levels. 

Coaches around the state think this might not be the end of historical wins this season. 

“Anyone can go out and beat a team on any given night,” Manney said. “You just don’t know whether it will be during the regular season or in the playoffs, when you want to be playing the best hockey of the season."

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