By Luke Sleeper, John's Journal Correspondent
Luverne boys hockey coach Derrick Brown was fighting a hoarse voice and a constant smile when he sat down for a postgame media conference after his team’s 6-3 loss to No. 2 seed Hermantown in Wednesday’s Class 1A state quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center.
Brown could barely sit still in his seat when describing the pride he felt in his players, who made their school’s first state appearance.
“I’ve been trying to tell the players to keep their heads up,” he said. “I’m just so proud of those guys.”
Brown, 28, knows what it means to play on the big stage. He played on two state tournament teams at Princeton High School in 2002 and 2003.
After graduating from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Brown (pictured) found a teaching job in the southwest corner of the state, 250 miles away from his hometown. He was hired to teach civics and economics in Luverne as well as coach hockey.
“Southern Minnesota isn’t exactly a hotbed for hockey coaches,” Brown said. “But I was 23 years old, I just figured ‘why not?’ and packed up everything and headed south.”
Five years and 97 wins later, Brown and his team found themselves making school history in St. Paul after an undefeated season, despite some skepticism about the strength of Luverne (27-1-1) and its schedule.
“Not many people think very highly of our section and our part of the state when it comes to hockey,” he said. “We have some high-end kids. I think our guys proved today that they are legitimate hockey players.”
Longtime Hermantown coach Bruce Plante was impressed with the young coach and his team after their matchup Wednesday.
“You can tell that (Brown) is a really good, really smart coach,” he said. “(Luverne) is a really dangerous and aggressive team, they can really play. They got our guys nervous.”
Plante compared the importance of Luverne’s inaugural visit to the state tournament to his team’s first appearance in 1994.
“I told (Brown) that making the tournament is where it all starts,” he said. “The exposure you get here is so unbelievably great for your program to have a great team like theirs. So many more kids start coming out for hockey.”
In a sport predominantly full of veteran coaches and traditional powers, Brown brings a different, more youthful perspective to the game in Luverne.
“As young as I am, I kind of get what it’s like to be in (the player’s) shoes,” he said. “It was only 10 years ago that I was here playing in this thing. A lot of good can come with understanding the guys better than an older coach might.”
With Brown likely a hot commodity in Minnesota hockey and his career still very much in its early stages, the young coach has been speculating on where it may lead him.
“I was actually talking to my dad last night about the future a little bit. I guess I can’t really guarantee where hockey could take me,” he said. “Part of me thinks it would be awesome to build something here and make the state tournament a tradition for Luverne hockey and bring some state titles to this program.”
With a young nucleus of talent returning for the Cardinals, including eighth-grader Jaxon Nelson -- whom Brown described as having “legendary potential” -- Luverne could become a tournament mainstay.
“Jaxon has really impressed me this year,” Brown said. “With young guys, you never really know how it’s going to work out. He fits in so well in our locker room. He’s just so humble and mature for his age. He has the potential to be legendary in Minnesota high school hockey.”
Chances are, many of those same things are being said about Brown, too.
Luverne will face Chisago Lakes in the consolation bracket Thursday morning at Marucci Arena.
--Nate Pionk scored two goals in Hermantown’s victory over Luverne, with Gunnar Olson scoring twice for Luverne. The Hawks had 48 shots on goal to Luverne’s 26.
NEW PRAGUE 5, CHISAGO LAKES 2
New Prague made some noise in its first trip to state, using a quick-strike attack to defeat the Wildcats and advance to Friday’s semifinals against Hermantown. New Prague scored goals 46 seconds and 1:04 into the second period as well as 1:30 into the third. Seth Kriha and Alex Gregor each scored two goals for New Prague.
EAST GRAND FORKS 5, ORONO 1
Tanner Tweten scored two goals for the top-seeded Green Wave. East Grand Forks, which not lost Dec. 27, outshot the Spartans 29-14.
ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL 4, TOTINO-GRACE 3 (OT)
Erik Gadbois scored on a power play 5:21 into overtime to boost the Crusaders into Friday’s semifinals against East Grand Forks. Totino-Grace led 3-1 after the first period before Cathedral scored twice in the second, and it remained 3-3 through regulation.
--The first pep band song of the day was a good one: “Thrift Shop” by the Luverne band at 10:08 a.m.
--Another pep band highlight came when the New Prague musicians played the Bruno Mars hit “Locked Out of Heaven.”
--Quote of the day: “The beauty of hockey is anybody can win.” -- Hermantown coach Bruce Plante.
--Name of the day: Luverne’s Gunnar Olson.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 345
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 8,572
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
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