Reusse: McNeely symbolizes Minnesota State Mankato’s hockey rise

Lakeville North had lost to Edina in the 2013 boys’ hockey state tournament and then was blown out by the Hornets 8-2 in the 2014 title game. The Panthers came back in resolute fashion in 2015, defeating Duluth East 4-1 to win the Class 2A championship and finish 31-0.

There were six North players headed for Division I scholarships, including defenseman Jack McNeely. He would play a season of USHL juniors for the Tri-City Storm in Kearney, Neb., Then move on to college with the Nebraska Omaha Mavericks.

McNeely wound up playing Division I hockey as a Maverick, although not in Omaha.

“I actually needed a second year in junior, to improve my game,” McNeely said. “And then Dean Blais resigned as Omaha’s coach. The new coach [assistant Mike Gabinet] had a bunch of commits and he wanted to go with those players. I understood that. ”

Mike Hastings, Blais’ assistant at Omaha before becoming the head coach at Minnesota State Mankato in 2012, had an opening for McNeely.

When the Gophers lose to MSU Mankato, as was the case in the four meetings during McNeely’s Mavericks career, the U fans immediately complain about the age disadvantage their poor Gophers face against the Mavericks.

Those backers of the big university, with its latest request for a billion bucks from the Legislature, prefer not to mention the discrepancy in NHL draftees – in the case of this month’s national semifinal, 14 for the Gophers and two for the Mavericks.

The Gophers are built primarily on top-flight recruits who will spend one season in juniors, and perhaps leave early when the NHL beckons. Right now, things are looking magnificent for coach Bob Motzko, with the decisions of certain NHLers Matthew Knies, Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe to return and thus join a fabulous recruiting class for 2022-23.

And as always, Hastings will be trying to dig up hidden gems from many corners of the hockey world, to go with players who won’t quit serious competition until they are sent home, presumably to join a senior league.

Hockey addicts such as Jack McNeely.

He played his four seasons for MSU Mankato: benched in the second half of his freshman season (“There were six defensemen playing better than me,” he said), becoming a regular as a sophomore, junior and senior, and then getting the extra COVID-19 season and jumping at that chance in 2021-22.

He was in Sioux Falls in 2018, when the Mavericks gave up a 2-0 lead in their NCAA tournament opener and lost 3-2 in overtime to Minnesota Duluth, which went on to become the national champion.

He was playing in 2019, when a terrific, top-seeded Mavericks team scored three early goals, then collapsed for a 6-3 loss to Providence – at Providence, despite the Friars’ very low seed.

The Mavericks had to accept the cancellation of the 2020 tournament to COVID. “We had such outstanding players in the class ahead of us,” McNeely said. “That team had a great chance [to win the Frozen Four]. ”

Finally in 2021, the Mavericks fought back from being down 3-1 late in the third period to Quinnipiac, earned their first-ever Division I tournament victory, and then whupped the Gophers 4-0 to reach the Frozen Four.

St. Cloud State stopped ’em 5-4 in a frenzied semifinal.

One step farther in 2022 – another four-goal win over the Gophers, this time 5-1 in the national semis, but then came Denver’s third-period explosion and a 5-1 loss in the championship game.

Last week, McNeely signed a contract with Stockton in the American Hockey League. He joined the team in Las Vegas to await a first chance to play as a pro.

As for those five seasons with the Mavericks, when he went from 20 on arrival to now 26, he said: “The Denver game, that’s going to hurt, but looking back – five straight conference titles, the NCAA wins, our arena always full … We left the program better than we found it.

“And with our coach [Hastings]this won’t be the last time for the Mavericks. ”

Greatest wins?

“Three come right to mind,” McNeely said. “In 2019, we were playing a very good Bowling Green team for the [WCHA] playoff title in our building. We were down 2-0 with two minutes left. We scored twice, and then Nick Rivera won it overtime.

“And the other two? Those would be beating the Gophers in the past two NCAA tournaments. ”

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