VIRGINIA -- The Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl hockey team is feeling good heading into the 2020-21 season.
The Blue Devils bring back five of their six defensemen, their top two scorers and their starting goalie.
“I think we have a strong defensive core that we return this year,’’ said head coach Cale Finseth. “We also return (captain) Ryan Scherf, who was our leading scorer up front, and Brennan Peterson, who was our second leading scorer.’’
In the nets, junior Ian Kangas is also back after boasting a 90 percent save percentage in 2019-20.
The defensemen are led by senior assistant captains Matt Callister and Tommy Nemanich, who was the team’s leading scorer as a defenseman last year. The unit is buoyed by Tyler Lamourea, Braden Tiedeman and Rollie Seppala, who “all had a significant amount of varsity playing time last year as well.’’
“I’m excited about this year, I am,’’ Finseth said at practice last week. “I think we have 13 returning varsity players that will skate this season. We have a couple guys that are very good sophomores (Isaac Flatley and Dylan Hedley) moving up, who I think will make a significant impact.’’ V/MI-B lost Dillon Drake, Brady Seppala, Tristan Pikula, Tanner Peterson and Jordan Mast to graduation.
During the first week of tryouts, Finseth was most worried about what kind of shape his guys were after about 10 months off.
“The first couple practices we’re just trying to get our feet back under us. We’ll get back into shape and then we’ll post the varsity and JV lineup on Friday.’’
However, his players were able to skate for two months during the summer and have been working out on their own, which helped ease his concerns.
The masks that are now required due to the coronavirus pandemic are another factor making it difficult to judge his players’ conditioning.
“It’s hard to determine how well or how bad they’re in shape because we’re all wearing masks out there. I don’t know if that’s having a significant impact on their breathing, but it definitely has had an impact on their conditioning. We’re doing our best with the masks, trying to keep them on and keeping them up. They’re going to have to do that during games. That’s going to be the expectation when we play at this point.’’
To account for the difficulty of the masks, the V/MI-B coaches are giving the players extended rest during conditioning drills and making sure they are alright with their breathing. “We don’t want anybody to go down because they’re wearing a mask either.’’
The Blue Devil skaters are frustrated with the masks getting soaked after 15 minutes, but they are adjusting well.
“It’s just the times we’re living in with the virus and we’re trying to make the best of it,’’ Finseth said. “They’re willing to wear the masks just to be able to play and be together.’’
“It’s very difficult out on that ice,’’ Scherf told the Mesabi Tribune. “It isn’t that bad’’ when first skating around, but when playing coast to coast, “you get labored and it’s hard to breathe.’’
“It’s a little bit different, but I think we’ll all get used to it eventually,’’ Callister said. “If it means we get to play then it’s not a big deal.’’
“It’s a bit of a struggle,’’ Nemanich said, but hopefully we can persevere through it. It’s tough, but if that’s what we have to do play, it’s worth doing.’’
As far as the team’s abilities heading into Saturday’s opener at Proctor, Finseth is confident in his team all around.
“You look at Ryan Scherf ... I don’t care if he’s playing football or if he’s playing soccer or he’s playing tennis, the kid is always going. He’s probably the hardest working kid I’ve ever imagined,’’ the third-year coach said. “He’s an extraordinary leader when it comes to the guys in the locker room. He does things the right way. That’s what you have to like about Ryan Scherf.’’
Peterson comes back as the second leading scorer, “which is gonna be an asset to have back with Ryan Scherf,’’ Finseth said. In addition, “I’m hoping that Keegan Ruedebusch has a great season as a junior. You can tell that he’s been working hard in the offseason. He looks good.’’
Kangas’ efforts as a sophomore last year were somewhat of a surprise, according to the coach.
“I think it was surprising. He was able to keep us in games.’’ Kangas played about 800 minutes, during which the Devils were often getting outshot 2-1 or 3-1. “He was keeping us in those games. Ian is a solid goaltender,’’ who gets better every year, has a great attitude and loves to be around the rink.
“Ian is going to be excellent back there. He’s looked really sharp in practice,’’ Finseth added.
“I’m excited from both ends of the rink, from our forwards to our defense to our goaltending,’’ he added.
The coaches and the players are hoping to make a run in Section 7A this winter.
“ “7A I think is going to be strong again. It is every year. There’s no easy games in 7A,’’ Finseth stated. “Every night’s a rival for somebody. It makes it exciting, but you have to show up every night and play because everybody’s up to play a 7A game.’’
The coach expects both Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld to be strong this season.
“With 18 games (instead of 25 due to COVID guidelines) every game is going to matter and every game you play is going to have a significant result.’’
Considering those changes, goals for this year had to change.
“Usually every time you step into a locker room, the goal is to go to a state tournament. Right now that hasn’t been decided whether or not there’s going to be a state tournament,’’ according to Finseth. “I think the goal coming in is to go as far as we can in Section 7A and really hold strong in the IRC. I want them to strive to win the IRC this year and go into section and see how far we can go.’’
Asked about the season, Nemanich said having five of six defensemen back is “going to be a huge help. “I think having a good defensive core ... playing with each other, is going to be really helpful, especially in the tougher games we’re going to have with the tough schedule,’’ which includes a lot of AA teams. “It would be nice to go to the section final. I think that’s the overall team goal.’’
Callister added the Blue Devils “should definitely be competitive in our section this year’’ with a lot of other teams graduating a number of skaters.
“As our coach told us we want to get to that section final and hopefully win that,’’ Scherf said. “As a team, we want to obviously play together, win together, be together.