The last time St. Cloud Cathedral made a state tournament appearance in boys hockey was 2009, before any of the current members of the team were in high school.
Protecting a one-goal lead as the minutes ticked off the clock in the third period Thursday, the Crusaders were under pressure in a situation they hadn’t experienced.
They were trying to hold off Alexandria in a battle for a state berth, and the Cardinals kept the pressure on.
“Our game plan was to keep our foot on the pedal and not let anything up,” Cathedral junior Matt Fritz said. “We were playing to win and not go into a defensive shell.
“With 10 minutes left, you try not to look at the clock until those last couple minutes and then you think, ‘this might really be happening’.”
The Crusaders held on for a 2-1 win in the Section 6A championship game at the Municipal Athletic Complex.
Junior goaltender Zach Fritz made 28 saves for the Crusaders and Matt Fritz scored the game-winning goal shorthanded with 2:52 left in the second period.
“We talked to our guys about it a lot, that in a big game, you have to minimize the excess stuff going on and just play,” said Cathedral coach Eric Johnson, who coached the Crusaders to the state tournament in 2008 and 2009.
“It’s the crowd’s job to cheer and our job to play. I think our kids bought into that.”
The Crusaders (20-7-1 overall) will play in the Class A quarterfinals Wednesday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
A seeding meeting Saturday morning will determine St. Cloud Cathedral’s opponent and game time.
“Friday will be a light day and Saturday will be back to normal,” Johnson said. “By that time, we’ll know who we play, so we can start prepping for them.”
Alexandria got on the board first at the 10:46 mark when Jack Steffl redirected a Kevin Finley shot from the point.
The Crusaders didn’t take long to answer.
Cathedral got pressure on the Alexandria net and sophomore wing Logan Neu was able to grab the puck and put it away for his 18th goal of the season. Matt Fritz and Will Hammer had the assists.
“The puck just kind of came out to me,”Neu said. “I saw the upper corner and I just put it away.”
The Crusaders also didn’t take long to take the lead.
Trevor Cornelius took Cathedral’s only penalty of the game 34 seconds after the Neu goal on a high-sticking call behind the play.
The Crusaders took control of the puck and Phil Ruegemer sent the puck ahead to Matt Fritz in the neutral zone. The junior let a wrist shot fly and it beat Alexandria goalie Sam Goetsch 1:14 after the Cornelius penalty.
“It was a great pass from Phil to me at the blue line,” Matt Fritz said. “I just came in and shot the puck.”
From then on, the Crusaders were focused on keeping the lead and growing it with the help of a couple power plays in the third period.
Cathedral didn’t get an insurance goal on the first man advantage five minutes into the third and Johnson called a timeout before the second one.
“I wanted to get another goal to separate us but Alexandria did a great job on the penalty kill,” Johnson said. “We ran into the concern of running our top guys out of gas so we kind of intentionally backed off.
“There’s only so much juice Will Hammer, Dan Bailey or Trevor Cornelius has.”
Alexandria couldn’t find the equalizer in the third, despite hitting a pipe and putting 11 shots on goal on Zach Fritz.
“This is an amazing feeling and I couldn’t feel any better,” Neu said. “But it’s great to have the boys with you and help you get the win.”