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State boys hockey: For Cretin-Derham Hall, the many overpowers the few

Fresh off a pair of consecutive state tournament appearances, the Cretin-Derham Hall boys hockey coaches were confident this year’s group was capable of making a similar run, though there was one glaring question mark.

“Where was our scoring going to come from?” Raiders coach Matt Funk said.

Cretin-Derham Hall graduated its top three point scorers from last year’s team, including star forward Jake Fisher. No returnee scored more than 15 goals last season.

The Raiders always have talent on the roster, and this year is no exception, but the proven varsity pedigree simply didn’t exist. There was no obvious 20-goal guy in the lineup.

And that has proven true. In fact, Cretin-Derham Hall has no player with more than 13 goals this season.

What’s also true is that it has not mattered. The Raiders are back in state for the third consecutive season. The unseeded squad will meet third-seeded Centennial in a Class 2A quarterfinal game a 1 p.m. Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Because, as the Raiders have discovered, the contributions of many can be more dangerous than the dominance of the few.

Cretin-Derham Hall has eight players with eight or more goals this season, the most of any team in the Class 2A state tournament field.

“It’s been really fun all year. We have no egos on the team, and it’s just been a lot of fun going out there and relying on all three lines, playing the way we play and listening to what the coaches are saying and what they’re preaching and just compete, basically,” said Raiders senior forward Chuck Owens, an Air Force commit. “It’s good that we have a lot of guys that we can rely on and are producing more than just one line, like other teams in the state.”

In December, Cretin-Derham Hall lost 2-1 to Hermantown and 1-0 to White Bear Lake. The Raiders also lost 2-1 to Edina. Those teams are all also in St. Paul this week, so no shame in those losses. Funk noted the Raiders played well in a number of games and simply weren’t rewarded with wins.

But that’s when Funk knew Cretin-Derham Hall was going to have to manufacture goals from a number of different sticks. That’s a scary thought for a coach. The collective isn’t always reliable in all situations as one or two top guns you know you can count on for a goal a night. But the Raiders consistently had different guys answer the bell.

In some cases, Funk said it’s been guys recovering from slow offensive starts. In other instances, players who were not relied on for points in the past simply stepped up this season. Look no further than senior forward Easton Swift, who has 28 points this year after producing eight as a junior. Players have found that, with the focus put simply on playing the right way, their games leap to new heights.

Once the contributions of everyone became more of an expectation than a hope, Funk said the game became easier for Cretin-Derham Hall than it is for star-dependent squads.

“The last couple of years, we had some big-time scorers. And if teams held them off the board, we were nervous about where that (scoring) would come from,” Funk said. “This year, we’ve been playing the teams that have those one or two scorers, and we’ve been putting in good game plans against them, and our guys are committed to playing a 200-foot game. And I think our guys have settled into our style and the kids have completely bought in.”

That approach proved particularly pivotal in the sectional tournament, which Cretin-Derham Hall entered as a No. 5 seed. That meant the Raiders weren’t blessed with last change.

“So whoever was going out was basically getting a line thrown out against them. Takes confidence from those guys to go against those (No. 1) lines,” Owens said. “Basically, our game plan was to shut them down and play your hockey. If you’re out there against them, play hard defense, and if you get chances, capitalize, but basically stop that first line.”

And everyone else was then responsible for more scoring. The nice thing for Cretin-Derham Hall is every line is capable of producing. Funk noted it sounds cliche, but “it’s been a whole team approach.”

“Even going into sections as a five seed, my assistant Niko (Kapetanovic) and I, that’s what we stressed with the boys — it’s not one or two guys who are going to get this done,” Funk said.

And when everyone produces, the Raiders become infinitely more difficult to game plan against. Opponents have aimed to shut down the Raiders’ top line of star sophomores. If they’re successful, everyone else for Cretin-Derham Hall simply responds. For instance, it was Owens, the senior captain heading the second line, who scored twice in the section final victory over St. Thomas Academy.

The “who” simply doesn’t matter much to this team, which is every coach’s dream.

“It’s fun to see a group buy into a mentality that we’re trying to preach, and, for us, it’s been playing really detailed hockey in all three zones and buying into the hockey that we’re trying to create, and it’s been fun to see it kind of click,” Funk said. “When it mattered the most, they’ve responded.”

Owens said things really started to click for the Raiders heading into the sectional. They took that No. 5 seed personally.

“I think we started rolling from there and really embracing the fact that no one believed in us outside of the 20 guys in the room,” Owens said. “It brought us closer, and I’m feeling really confident going forward.”

Even as they enter the big-school tournament sans a seed. The underdog role is nothing new to them at this point. And the Raiders certainly won’t be wide-eyed. The journey to the X is becoming an annual pilgrimage for this program. But this trip feels different.

“Because they’ve had their backs against the wall and have been told all year long that they’re not the same CDH team and not as good as in year’s past,” Funk said. “So I think we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”

Plus, there’s something Cretin-Derham Hall hasn’t achieved in the previous two trips that’s still on the table to be taken — winning a state title. How fitting would it be if the group least expected to capture a championship was the one to do so?

“I think there’s part of this group that wants to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time,” Funk said. “Getting there is great. But finishing the job is something that they can leave their legacy with.”

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