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Moorhead Spuds advance to 18th straight section championship game

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MOORHEAD—The Minnesota Class 2A, Section 8 boys hockey semifinal had been decided, despite time still remaining on the scoreboard Saturday. Moorhead had won. But there was Cole O'Connell and Jack Stetz streaking down the ice with a 2-on-1 advantage in the closing seconds. Two Moorhead seniors who both have over 100 points in their careers.

It was one final play for two seniors not ready for their last high school game at Moorhead Sports Center to end.

"You always finish a game," Stetz said. "It's a great experience to have two goals in the last game playing here, but we're not done yet."

O'Connell could've shot the puck, but fittingly, the two-year captain got the St. Cloud goalie to freeze before sliding the the puck to Stetz for the goal with 4.7 seconds remaining. It capped a 5-0 victory for No. 9 Moorhead over St. Cloud.

"We've been very fortunate with the kids that we have," Moorhead head coach Jon Ammerman said. "Those are two that are right at the top in terms of character kids. It was pretty cool to see them end their career in here like that."

For the 18th straight season, Moorhead will play in the section championship game. The Spuds will take on No. 18 St. Michael-Albertville at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at a site to be determined. The Spuds beat the Knights 5-0 on Jan. 5 in the only matchup this season.

"I think people would be lying if we don't expect to go to the state tournament every year," Ammerman said. "That's the goal, and we put ourselves in a position to hopefully do that on Wednesday.

"St. Michael is on a hot streak right now. Their goaltender is playing extremely well. They play extremely hard. They've been on the fringe of making that next step. They'll be a great test, and hopefully we're ready to go."

Neither team found the back of the net in the first period Saturday, as Moorhead senior goalie Lance Leonard stopped all four shots he saw and St. Cloud goalie Soren Falloon stopped all nine shots he saw. It took St. Cloud more than five minutes to get its first shot on goal in the first period, but the Spuds couldn't capitalize.

"We knew they were going to come hard in the first period," Stetz said. "We knew the first period was going to be really competitive, really back and forth, so after the first period we said, 'Boys, we got them right where we want them. Now, let's start putting them away.'"

Moorhead capitalized early in the second, scoring two goals in the first 2 minutes, 24 seconds. In the last game at Moorhead Sports Center of their high school careers, Stetz and fellow senior Carter Randklev set up a sophomore with many more home games in front of him. Stetz sent a pass from the right circle to Randklev in the left circle and Randklev found Luke Gramer in between the circles. Gramer fired into the back of the net and the tie was broken 1:24 into the second.

Senior Ryan Stafford made his last home game memorable, as he found the back of the net barely over a minute after Gramer opened the scoring. Isaac Henkemeyer-Howe found Stafford at the edge of the left circle and Stafford seemingly whiffed on his one-timer attempt, but the puck hit his skate and trickled into the back of the net to make it 2-0. It wasn't pretty, but it counted.

"It put things in perspective," Stafford said. "Being a Spud, it was just awesome to score in my very last game here. There's been so many memories here."

Stetz and O'Connell took things from there, accounting for all three goals in the third period to seal it. Moorhead seniors had their fingerprints all over Saturday's win, as three scored, five had points and Leonard stopped all 18 shots he saw in net.

"That's kind of high school athletics," Ammerman said. "You hope your seniors are your best players. Almost every single one of them tonight did an outstanding job of finishing their last game in this building on a high note. They played extremely well and were rewarded on the scoresheet because of it."

FIRST PERIOD: no scoring.

SECOND PERIOD: 1, M, Gramer (Randklev, Stetz), 1:24. 2, M, Stafford (Henkemeyer-Howe, Gunkel), 2:24.

THIRD PERIOD: 3, M, Stetz (Larson, Frisch), 5:10. 4, M, O'Connell, 8:17. 5, M, Stetz (O'Connell), 16:56.

SAVES: S, Falloon 9-10-6—25. M, Leonard 4-9-5—18.

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