Apollo keeping loose before big challenge

Apollo keeping loose before big challenge

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Apollo keeping loose before big challenge

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ST. PAUL

For high school hockey players, practice is a little more fun when it’s in the month of March.

That’s the case for the St. Cloud Apollo hockey team, which won the Section 6A title on the last day of February and is now in the state tournament for the first time since 1984.

“Everyone is a whole level faster and stronger this week,” Apollo defenseman Brandon Bloch said.

“Everyone is excited to be playing at the state tournament. You always watch it on TV, but to get to actually play in the tournament will be a blast.”

The Eagles (18-10 overall) face No. 1 St. Thomas Academy (24-2-2) in the Class A quarterfinals at 6 p.m. today at the Xcel Energy Center.

Apollo has stayed relaxed since it found out it would be facing the top-seed and two-time defending champion Cadets.

“We’re not really all that intimidated,” said Apollo senior Jared Christen. “Some players might be, but we’re not intimidated. We’re not picked to be the favorite but that’s been the story of the season. We’re not going to back down.”

Christen was the Central Lakes Conference leader in goals (42), assists (40) and total points (82). Just as the Eagles are making history this week, Christen made school history as well with the most decorated offensive season in the program’s history.

His goals and points are the most an Apollo player has totaled in school history. He is two assists short of the single-season assists record.

Eagles coach Pete Matanich was an All-CLC pick as a senior when Apollo won the CLC championship in 1997 but never went to a state tournament. He was an assistant coach at St. Cloud Tech when the Tigers fell a game short of the 2004 state tournament.

“Throughout the course of making the mistakes I made in my playing career, I tried to pass off the advice to these guys,” Matanich said. “Over the course of the last four years, they’ve eaten up everything I’ve told them and worked extremely hard to get to this point.”

The Eagles are thin in net with just two goaltenders, both freshmen. But Nick Althaus remained healthy all season with an .871 saves percentage and a 3.06 goals against average.

Althaus – whose brother, Austin, is a goaltender at St. Cloud Tech – has played all but one period in 25 games this season.

“I don’t think a lot of our guys ever thought they’d get to this point so I think a lot of their nerves are gone,” Matanich said. “Right now it’s more of a ‘let’s go out there and play type of mentality’. Just see what happens.”

St. Thomas Academy hasn’t lost to a Class A team since the 2010 section finals and didn’t allow a goal in the section tournament.

Sophomore Tom Novak leads the Cadets with 26 goals and 27 assists. David Zevnik is one of the top goaltenders in the state with .942 save percentage and a 1.16 GAA with seven shutouts.

“We know (Zevnik) hasn’t faced a lot of shots so far in the playoffs and we’re going to try to get a lot of shots on net,” Christen said. “When we get into the zone, we have to get the puck to the net and hopefully it will find a way in.”

Added Apollo defenseman Jordan Keller: “We’re going to have to take short shifts.”

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