Minnesota High School Hockey: 2023-24 Section 7A Preseason Preview

Section 7A has been dominated by Hermantown over the past decade plus. The Hawks have won 12 of the last 13 Section 7A titles and been a consistent villain to many smaller northern hockey communities. However, could last season have been a signal that we could be seeing a possible changing of the guard on the horizon? The Hawks who normally steam roll their way through the sectional to State suddenly looked more mortal and were pushed hard not once but twice on their way to the 7A Title. The offseason did bring some big changes as some schools figured they had a better chance in 7AA. One school though chose to come down to take on the small school northern bully. Cloquet/Esko/Carlton enters Class A for the first time in school history fresh off a 15 win season at the AA level. Add in the youngsters from Hibbing who are coming off a Pee Wee and Bantam A State Title run last winter in the youth level and the Bluejackets may just be young enough not to know they should fear the Hawks. Don’t overlook Proctor who brings back an elite goaltender and some quality scoring depth to have one of their better teams in recent years. Could this add up to what would finally be a more entertaining and competitive year in 7A or will the Hawks again just romp to the title which we have all become far too accustomed to seeing come playoff time. 

Section 7A Preseason Poll (9 Teams)

1- Hermantown 

2- Cloquet/Esko/Carlton

3- Hibbing

4- Proctor 

5- International Falls 

6- Greenway 

7- North Shore 

8- Ely 

9- Moose Lake 

1- Hermantown- The Hawks were hit hard by graduation this offseason but as we learned by now this is a program that just reloads and should be a top santander again in Class A. Hermantown returns a great core but questions do surround the return of Senior Dallas Vieau if he is back, which I have heard he is returning,  they will have plenty of scoring returning. The Penn State commit along with Seniors Joshua Kauppinen & Evan Gunderson and Junior River Freeman & Sophomore Bradford Skytta should give the Hawks plenty to build around up front. However their strength will be on the backend as they return Seniors Will Esterbrooks, Drew Nelson, Weston Bohlman & Junior Henry Peterson all are coming back with experience on the Blueline and they will be able to rely on one of the top goalies in Class A in Senior Dane Callaway in net. You also can never discount another wave of good AA Bantams coming up led by standout Sophomore AJ Francisco and Hermantown looks like they will be locked and loaded for another deep run this winter.   

2- Cloquet/Esko/Carlton- Welcome to Class A Lumberjacks! Fresh off a 15 win season in AA CEC should be the main contender for the Hawks in 7A this winter, as Hibbing will be reloading with a younger team. Cloquet returns top scorer Senior Joseph Antonutti who had 15 goals last winter, add to him a nice core of Seniors Jace Stewart, Ethan Kilichowski, Ryan Jones all having double digit points and there is scoring depth up front for this crew.They also return two star defensemen in Junior Karson Young, who had 20 points from the back end, and Sophomore Cole Painovich, who played big minutes as a 9th grader last winter, and they will log tons of minutes on the ice and allow this team to transition well out of their own end all winter. Both goalies return as Seniors Caden Kubi & Logan Sickmann are back with plenty of big experience in net. All this adds up to what should be a very good Class A team that will look to try and push the Hawks in 7A. 

3- Hibbing- The Bluejackets had an outstanding year last winter but they were hit extremely hard by graduation as they lost 6 of their top 7 returning leading scorers and 90 % of their scoring and their 3 year starting goalie to graduation. However, Hibbing will still be one of the most interesting teams in Class A to watch this year as they will be very young but talented but they could experience some growing pains along the way. They do return defenseman Senior Christian Edmonds and forwards Senior Jack Gabardi & Junior Jace Kampsula who each had double digit points last year. As we know they have some serious help on the way as they have a great incoming group of A Bantams headlined by Tate Swanson, Isaiah Hildenbrand. Jackson Strukel, Kelin Elsner & Benjamin Galli who went to back to back State tournaments and won the A title last winter. The future is bright for this traditional program and how quickly those youngsters can adapt to varsity hockey will be a very fun story to follow this winter. 

4- Proctor- The Rails are looking like a team that could surprise many this winter and have a big year and pull off a major upset or two along the way. They return star goaltender Senior AJ Reyelts who has the ability to win a game by himself every night he takes the net. They also return 7 of their top 9 scorers including Juniors Tanner Ross & Austin Bryant who were the teams two leading scorers as sophomores last winter. On the Blue Line they bring back a nice core of experience led by  Seniors Carson Pavlowich, Nolan Okstad & Cooper Johnson all of whom had double digits points from the backend. This will be a definite team to keep an eye on as they should be in line to have a very good winter in this upcoming season. 

5- International Falls- The Broncos had a really strong finish to their year last winter but they were hit hard by graduation this past offseason. They do bring back Junior Cooper Crandall who had double digit goals and they also have Seniors Royce Allan & Noah Shikowsky back who had double digit points for a core to build around. Goaltender Junior Keaton Maish got some experience last winter and they do have a nice group of A Bantams coming up and watch for 9th graders Anthony Yerxa & William Yerxa to be good young tandem and give this team another shot of optimism as they try to regain some of the glory this traditional hockey power used to be accustomed to. 

6- Greenway- The Raiders lost a very large senior class to graduation this past offseason and will be looking for some new faces to fill the void left by their departure. They will look to build around Senior Thomas Vekich who missed time last year at different points but was productive in limited action and they will also return their main goaltender in Senior Derek Gibeau who brings some good experience to the net. This team will be work in progress this winter as new players begin to fill important roles. 

7- North Shore- The Storm should be a much improved team this winter as they return the majority of their lineup from last winter. They bring back their two leading scorers in Senior Jake Stadler & Junior Ayden Althaus. They also return their top defender Junior Jacob Carpenter who along with a host of others returns this season coming off double digit points seasons. They will need to get better play out of their goaltender but they will return experience in net and this should be a much improved team this year as they look to move up the ladder in 7A. 

8- Ely- The Timberwolves will once again play with a short bench but they should be a fun team to watch this winter. They return their two leading scorers as Seniors Deegan Richards & Drew Marolt both return with 20 plus goals under their belt from last year and will be explosive again this season. They will need a goalie and as stated earlier depth is always an issue just based on the number of players they have on the bench each night but look for Ely to have a decent year and do their best to compete each night. 

9- Moose Lake- The Rebels are another team that struggles with program numbers. Looking at things on paper, scoring goals could again be an issue for Moose Lake this year as they dont bring back many goals from an unproductive group last year. That makes the development of goaltender Junior Eli Gilbertson even more important as he split time as the starter as sophomore and got the nod in the playoffs. It will again be a tough year for this group but hopefully the Rebels keep fielding teams as they continue to need to work just to make a roster every year.