One of the challenges for the Stillwater high school hockey program over the years has been talented players departing for what some might perceive as greener pastures. Ponies senior Mitch Reinke is one such candidate who is thrilled that he stayed at home. The Michigan Tech recruit was happy to contribute to Stillwater’s inaugural state tournament team and the excitement it has created in the community.
“Playing for my community and the people I grew up with was pretty important to me so that was my decision,” Reinke said. “There were definitely options for me, but the way we were able to get it done this year for our whole community and be the first team ever to go to state, everything was worth it by far. I have no second guesses.”
Reinke may join the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders as early as this year and plans to spend next season there before moving on to Michigan Tech.
Ponies coach Matt Doman is also hoping Reinke’s experience will set an example for others facing those same decisions.
“It’s huge, because he got to play with his buddies and he got to make it to the state tournament,” Doman said. “He’s going to have success at the next level and this will only help him. For him to be able to go through this with his friends is something that hopefully will have a long-lasting effect on the youth that are coming up. They know they don’t have to go to a private school, they don’t have to go somewhere else to have success and to experience what we’ve experienced.”
Reinke, for one, doesn’t expect Stillwater’s next trip to state to take another 59 seasons.
“Oh for sure, this is the start of something huge for Stillwater,” he said. “A lot of people are really happy with us and the expectations for people to get here in the future has gone up a ton.”
It has been a hectic stretch for several Stillwater-area hockey families, including three with players who competed in the program’s first-ever MSHSL state hockey tournament and more slated to compete in this weekend’s AA Bantam state tournament in Rogers.
Sam and Simon Sagissor, Jackson Cates and Jack Manning each have younger siblings (TJ Sagissor, Noah Cates and Luke Manning) playing for the Stillwater bantams.
The Sagissors also have a cousin (Charlie Sagissor) skating for the Ponies.
In the moments following Thursday’s loss to Edina, Doman was asked about the program’s strength building throughout the youth association.
“It’s tough sitting up here and trying to think about the future and how bright it is, but it is bright,” the coach said. “We have a great bantam program and our pee wees are strong. The experience that our underclassmen winning a section championship and participating in this tournament… it’s exciting to know what we have and what we want and we still can do.”
Stillwater’s familiarity runs even deeper when you consider assistant coaches Jay Cates and Paul Benson have one or more sons playing on the team with Jackson (Cates) and Josh and Tyler Benson.
“There’s no question with the amount of brothers and cousins we have, there’s no doubt that has played a huge role in our success here at the end of the year,” Doman said. “It’s unbelievable how many relatives we have.”
Jay Cates enjoyed a stellar career with the Ponies before spending four years at the University of Minnesota, serving as captain with Paul Broten during the 1987-88 season. Fellow assistant coaches Paul Benson and Pete Hamilton are also Stillwater graduates who skated for the Ponies.
n Devin Cates’ grandfather (Jay’s father-in-law) Eric Sundquist played in the 1955 state hockey tournament for Minneapolis Southwest, which lost to St. Paul Johnson 3-1 in the championship game.
It takes a village
Preparing for the top-seeded Hornets was just one of the tasks for Stillwater prior to the drop of the puck. Playing in the state tourney also comes with a cost, though many in the community pitched in to ensure a memorable and worry-free experience for the players.
“I’m just really thankful for our captains’ parents and volunteers and how much they did,” Doman said. “We’ve had people helping stuff envelopes, going around town and doing some last-minute fundraising and trying to book hotels and plan meals. We had different itineraries if we won or lost, so it took a lot of people a lot of effort and a lot of time — a lot of headaches — to get here and to have it run as smooth as it has for us.
“We were really fortunate, everybody was really generous and the community really came out and showed their support and helped us financially have the opportunities to give the kids something special. I don’t know what the final number was, but it was great to see the support we got.”
Odds and ends
With the Ponies ending their long state tournament drought, the boys’ lacrosse program at Stillwater is the only one without a state appearance, though the MSHSL has only sanctioned that sport for seven years.
Seventeen Stillwater teams competing in sports sanctioned by the MSHSL have won a total of 61 state championships, compared to 12 teams that are still chasing their first state crown.
n Those not fortunate enough to secure tickets to see the state tournament in person were able to enjoy a first-rate broadcast on television with Gary Thorne providing the play-by-play and the godfather of Minnesota hockey Lou Nanne offering analysis in his 50th year in the booth. Thorne has been broadcasting major league baseball games for nearly three decades, in addition to the Stanley Cup playoffs and hockey in the Winter Olympics.
Former Ponies coach Phil Housley spent several years providing analysis for the Class A state tournament — even winning a local Emmy Award as part of the station’s coverage one year — before accepting an assistant coaching position with the Nashville Predators after last season.
n After the Ponies defeated heavy favorite Hill-Murray and made history with their first-ever section championship, Doman was impressed with how quickly the news spread — and the source of some the congratulatory texts and emails he received.
“There’s just been an outpouring of support that the players and coaches have received from the community, and really from a lot of Hill-Murray people,” Doman said. “A lot of Hill-Murray folks congratulated us on the big game and wished us good luck. I guess I didn’t expect how far reaching this game has gone, even some of my friends that don’t live in Minnesota, they knew 10 minutes after the game was over that we had won. I didn’t really expect how far reaching that win was.”
n The outcome of Stillwater’s state quarterfinal loss to Edina had long been decided when junior defenseman Zach Eder-Zdechlik had his season ended with a broken foot suffered while blocking a shot in the final moments of the game.
“That’s just the kind of kid he is, a 6-1 game and the kid sacrifices his body for the team,” Doman said. “I can’t say enough about him.”
Eder-Zdechlik watched Friday’s consolation game against Duluth East from the stands before joining the team in the locker room afterward.
n Stillwater graduate and Chisago Lakes head coach Paul Gibson was a junior on legendary coach George Thole’s 1984 state championship football team. Gibson was an all-conference running back for the Ponies in 1985 for a team that won a conference title and finished 11-1 after losing to Apple Valley in the state quarterfinals.
See the Stillwater Gazette’s Facebook page for photo galleries from the state tournament