SOMERSET — The Menomonie boys hockey team got the stop.
Then it got the shot.
Hayden Weir’s goal with less than a minute left pushed the Mustangs back to state for the first time since 1991 with a 3-2 Division 2 sectional championship victory over Eau Claire Regis/Altoona/McDonell on Saturday afternoon at Somerset Ice Arena.
Weir deflected a shot with less than 30 seconds left to put the Mustangs (10-17-1) in front after RAM rallied from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game in the third. Weir’s goal came after the Mustangs killed a RAM power play a few minutes earlier, denying a chance to complete the comeback before the sophomore forward made it happen in front of the net after Menomonie won a late faceoff in the opposing zone.
“We just tried to tell the kids to relax, to take of their responsibilities, take a deep breath and keep it simple,” Menomonie coach Matt Ellis said of the final period. RAM (14-10) tied the game near the midpoint of the third period when Elijah Schmidt scored on an assist from Ben Biskupski. Menomonie goaltender Jack Drout was strong in net throughout for the Mustangs and said his team entered the third period simply looking to win the period.
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They tied it, but that still got them where they wanted to go.
The teams played to a scoreless first period with both squads having power-play opportunities early. Regis/Altoona/McDonell had the first chance 5-on-4 less than two minutes into the game when Sam Dahms was called for a trip. The Mustangs killed the penalty and soon after found themselves with a man advantage following at interference call on Tanner Robinson. RAM added another penalty less than two minutes later but was able to kill a short 5-on-3 into a 5-on-4.
Scoring picked up in the second period with the Mustangs finding the net twice before RAM had a response. Hayden Weir corralled a deflection off a faceoff in the RAM zone and raced down the ice before beating goaltender Alex Erickson for the first goal with less than five minutes remaining in the second.
It didn’t take the Mustangs long to double their lead as freshman Ryan Xu got one past Erickson a little more than two minutes later to push the lead to 2-0. But RAM had a response late as freshman Tanner Robinson took advantage of a Mustangs turnover in their own zone and beat Drout to bring RAM within one less than two minutes after Xu’s goal.
Menomonie is onto state for the first time since winning the championship in 1991. Regis/Altoona/McDonell was seeking the co-op’s first trip.
“It feels really cool,” Drout said of going to state. “I’m honored to be a part of the team with the boys and they’re the real winners. They’re the ones that scored the goals. I’m just back there stopping shots.”
Regis/Altoona/McDonell and Menomonie have both been close to the state tournament in recent years. The Mustangs were a game away in 2020, falling to Somerset 3-2 in the sectional finals. RAM also was a game away from state, losing to Somerset 2-1 in 2021. RAM graduates a large senior class of Isaiah Martin, Tristan Gardner, Zack Howell, Schmidt, Evan Gustafson, Sam Peterson, Biskupski, Brandon Wagner, Evan Eckes, Sam Knickerbocker and Erickson. Both teams advanced to Saturday’s sectional finals with high-scoring victories in Tuesday’s semifinals. The second-seeded Mustangs doubled up Baldwin-Woodville 6-3 in Menomonie, jumping out to a 3-0 lead after the first period on the way to the win. Cody Dahms scored three of the team’s first five goals as Menomonie led 5-0 as Dahms completed the hat tricks with about four minutes left in the second period. Baldwin-Woodville closed the gap to 5-3 in the third before Hayden Weir had an empty-net goal to secure the win. David Fern and Colton Szotkowski each had goals as well for Menomonie and Drout stopped 48 shots.
Fourth-seeded RAM also used a three-goal first period to set the tone in its semifinal win, knocking off top-seeded Black River Falls 7-4. Evan Gustafson scored four goals, Evan Eckes added two and Elijah Schmidt found the back of the net in the victory while Erickson made 40 saves in goal.
Menomonie will open the Division 2 state tournament on Thursday at Bob Suter’s Capitol Ice Arena in Middleton as the No. 4 seed against No. 1 New Richmond. The Tigers (22-4) won the Big Rivers Conference championship during the regular season and earned victories over Menomonie by scores of 6-0 and 5-2. Thursday’s winner will face the winner of the other semifinal matchup between No. 2 Mosinee and No. 3 Oregon on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. for the state championship.
Ellis advanced to state during his time as a player in Minnesota and now gets to lead a team in its pursuit of a title.
“It’s amazing. I got to experience it as a player but it’s even sweeter as a coach,” Ellis said. “For these kids to show the resiliency from doing 2-22 last year to now getting 10 wins and going to state is pretty big for the town and everyone after everyone that came before them.”
Menomonie is part of a heavy Big Rivers influence on the state boys and girls hockey tournaments. Two-time defending Division 1 state champion Hudson is back as a No. 3 seed and will face No. 2 Verona in Friday afternoon’s semifinals while the Hudson girls are a No. 3 seed and will play in Thursday night’s semifinals against No. 2 Superior.
The conference won two of the three state championships in the past two years. The Hudson boys and Chippewa Falls/Menomonie girls won titles in 2021 before Hudson and Rice Lake swept the boys championships last year. With four teams heading south again this week, the odds of further gold for the conference are good.
“The BRC, they’re unreal,” Drout said. “So for us to play teams like (Eau Claire) Memorial and (Eau Claire) North and New Richmond, it gets us ready for games like this and it helped us win this game.”