Future Austin Bruins lead Lakeville South into its fifth straight section title game
John Novak and Tate Pritchard are affiliate players with the Austin Bruins. They would prefer to not join the Bruins for at least another nine days, as they play for a section title tonight against Lakeville North and head coach Jake Taylor, a former Rochester Lourdes star.
ROCHESTER — Josh Storm can’t help but smile a bit when asked about John Novak.
Storm sees what Novak brings to the Lakeville South boys hockey team on a daily basis, whether in practice or in a game. And he sees that the spotlight isn’t often placed on Novak, who has a solid five goals and 15 points on a Cougars team loaded with high-end goal scorers and point producers.
“Johnny, the poor kid goes unsung too often,” Storm said of Novak, a senior defenseman for the No. 13-ranked Cougars. “He’s a Clydesdale horse, where you know what you’re getting. It’s not going to be flashy, it’s not going to be sexy, but it’s going to be everything you ask.”
Novak’s do-whatever-it-takes approach is a big reason why the Cougars (20-6-1) are a win away from going to the Class AA state tournament for a fifth consecutive year. Top-seeded South faces rival and third-seeded Lakeville North (13-14-0) at 7 p.m. tonight at the Rochester Recreation Center in the Section 1AA championship game.
“Going to school with each other every day, growing up with each other, you love one another and want to see the best for everyone,” Novak said. “Just showing up every day and working together, the ultimate goal of working to try to win a state tournament together is something you’ll never forget.”
While Novak hopes his senior season is extended by another nine days — the state tournament is set for next Thursday through Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — he also knows his hockey-playing days are far from over. He recently signed a tender to play the 2023-24 season for the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League, following in the skates of former South captain and defenseman Jack Malinski, who is the Bruins’ captain this season and has committed to play Division I college hockey at the University of Vermont.
Novak and Lakeville South senior forward Tate Pritchard are affiliate players for the Bruins this season and could join Austin when South’s season ends.
“Johnny has been the best defensive defenseman on this team this year,” said Storm, in his second season as the Cougars’ head coach after a decade at Owatonna. “And he has the ability to add to the offense. For his size, he plays much bigger. He’s really good in the offensive end, he just picks his spots more than some of our guys.
“He has a big upside. He’s passionate about the game. I’m so happy for him. He doesn’t get the looks that guys like (defenseman Ty) Lafferty do, but in a lot of ways he is every bit as valuable to us as Ty is.”
Pritchard’s value shows up initially on the scoresheet, but his game is deeper than just scoring goals. The senior forward leads the Cougars in goals (27) and is second in points (56), and he may have the most upside — room to grow into a professional hockey player — of anyone on the team.
“Tate is one of the most competitive human beings I’ve ever been around,” Storm said. “His skating separates him from every other kid on the ice; he’s such a good skater. And he wants it so badly. When it comes to scoring and getting the puck … if I could pick one of the guys (in our locker room) who I think could be in the NHL in a few years, it’s Tate.”
Tonight’s matchup will be the third this season between South and North and it will mark the sixth time in the past seven years that the rivals have met in the section championship game. South won both regular season matchups this year — 4-2 on Dec. 13 and 4-0 on Jan. 27 — and the Cougars have won four consecutive section titles.
Pritchard has been outstanding down the stretch for South. He had a hand in five of the team’s six goals (two goals, three assists) in a 6-0 win against Rochester Century on Saturday in the section semifinals, and he has 14 total points in the past five games. He said South likes playing with the pressure of being the defending champion and No. 1 seed.
“Winning the section and the conference in back to back to back years, it puts a target on your back,” Pritchard said. “You get everyone’s best game, especially against North, a big rival. We feel like we always get everyone’s best game and that’s fun for us.”
Taylor hoping for a return to state
Lakeville North also has a southeastern Minnesota connection, as head coach Jake Taylor helped Rochester Lourdes reach the 2001 Class A high school state championship game, the first-ever title game played at the Xcel Energy Center.
Taylor, in his fourth season as North’s head coach after six as an assistant, has the Panthers in the section final for a third straight season, after beating Mayo 3-2 in overtime in Saturday’s section semifinals.
Taylor, a Byron native, was a rugged defenseman in his playing days. He played for the University of Minnesota, followed by 366 games in the top minor league in the world, the American Hockey League.
His Panthers are led by junior forward Tyler Arenson (15-19—34), who has six points in the past five games, and senior forward Griffin Kranz (19-10—29), who scored a momentum-shifting goal in the first period against Mayo on Saturday.