Did Jeff Poeschl enter the 2019-20 boys varsity hockey season with a state tournament title in mind?
Poeschl had coached the Mahtomedi Zephyrs to the coveted state high school hockey tournament four years in row. The Zephyrs had been there 11 times in total, never placing higher than third.
And each of those rosters, including the 2018 and 2019 seasons, boasted Division I and III players. Names you would expect to be on a state title plaque.
But it wasn’t until 2020 when they captured the title with a 3-2 overtime win against Hermantown … without a bona fide star.
“By winning the 2020 state championship, our team really proved the importance of a team effort,” said Poeschl. “One of my goals for each team every year is for them to come together as a team and to realize that special bond that takes place when a team commits to one another, and the goals that are set. That’s a goal for me every year, and last year’s group was unique in that regard because they just totally bought into that.”
“It was not anywhere near the talent level of our team the past two years,” added assistant coach and Mahtomedi Youth Hockey Association president Alex Rogosheske. “We were a better team in the last two years. But the 2020 team, guys accepted their roles. Guys played their roles and bought in, and that was the secret. It sounds cliché, but that was the secret of how we came out champions.”
Here’s how Mahtomedi achieved the ultimate success, and the path that took the entire team and community to new heights.
Do you think the Edmonton Oilers would say ‘no thank you’ to having Conor McDavid on their team? Probably not. But with every top player comes challenges.
“As a coach, it’s a double-edged sword,” said Poeschl, who graduated 11 seniors from his 2019 team. “You always want those elite players. It’s hard to replace skill in your lineup. You always welcome that high-level skill in your lineup. But with that, there comes some added challenges with regard to personalities and egos. And sometimes when you have that elite player or two, remember these kids have played together all the way up, they kind of fall into their roles and I think sometimes you’re support players kind of say, ‘well, so and so is going to do it. We’ll just rely on player X to score all the goals or to get the job done.’
“Again, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s nice to have those talented, high-skill players that get all the press, but I think the chemistry of the team can flourish sometimes when you don’t have those high-profile players. We certainly had plenty of skill on our team last year, we just didn’t have those one or two guys that stood out as, ‘Well gosh you play Mahtomedi, you have to stop this guy.’ That made a big difference.”
In an effort to replace the loss of top talent, new players were relied on in new ways. Guys who had played the supporting role found ways to be the lead.
“There were personalities and players that were willing to play roles that enhance that whole team aspect and a family feeling about it,” said Poeschl. “I think that was the biggest difference. They basically said, ‘I’m sold out for whatever we need to do, and I’m willing to do it,’ and everyone was on board.”
Poeschl points to the balanced scoring the team had all season between all lines. Different players contributed. Even unexpected players stepped up.
“Frankly, we addressed that going into the tournament,” he said. “We recognized that if we were going to have some success and make some noise, we were going to need to have a few guys, maybe even unexpected guys step up and have a great tournament and that happened.”
Poeschl knows that without the youth association, the success at the top high school level isn’t there. In addition to mentor programs and establishing a strong connection between the youth teams and the high school squad they all aspire to be a part of, he’s had the aid of Rogosheske.
Rogosheske, a Mahtomedi hockey alum himself, looks at how far the youth program has come since he played, nearly tripling in size with multiple teams at every level from Squirts to Junior Gold.
“Success breeds success,” he said. “With more kids comes more depth and the ability to get great players in town, and keep good players in town. They’re there for the education, they love the small-town area, the small-town feel, we’re just really lucky to be a part of a great community.”
And it’s that community that is the true victor. For a town sandwiched between larger cities like White Bear Lake and Stillwater, Rogosheske admits there’s an extra sense of community pride to come out winners at the end of the season. A pride that every Mahtomedi player feels from the first moment they put on the ‘M.’
“There’s nothing better than community-based hockey,” said Rogosheske. “There’s not a better feeling than growing up with a group of guys or a group of gals and playing for your town and getting to a state tournament and representing your town.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that Mahtomedi would win a state title. For me personally it means a lot but, I know how much it means to other people in town and the alumni that came before us, so that’s what’s really special about it for me.”