Jack McNeely and Riese Zmolek played against each other three times during their high school careers.
McNeely’s Lakeville North Panthers beat Zmolek’s Rochester Century Panthers on all three occasions. In fact, North shut Century out in all of those games.
“Good times,” McNeely said this week, with a laugh.
Zmolek may not recall those games as fondly as McNeely, but he has grown fond of McNeely as a teammate over the past three-plus years at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The standout defensemen who were once high school rivals are now the lone returning seniors on the blue line for the No. 5-ranked Mavericks, who are scheduled to open their 2020-21 season with a non-conference series at Bemidji State on Sunday and Monday.
“I don’t think much has changed for us (as seniors),” Zmolek said. “Both me and Jack are quiet guys, we don’t speak often. We just try to work hard and do things the right way.”
Leading by example will be as important as ever this season. MSU lost three of its top five defensemen from last season, as Ian Scheid and Edwin Hookenson graduated and Connor Mackey signed with the NHL’s Calgary Flames after a 24-point junior season.
“We know what the expectations are here coming into every year, based on the players who were here before us,” said McNeely, who helped Lakeville North go undefeated and win a Class AA state championship in 2015. “We know what the coaching staff expects. There are a lot of things we want to accomplish this year -- a WCHA regular season championship, we want to win the Jeff Sauer trophy (given to the WCHA playoff champion), win the first game in the NCAA tournament, then get to the Frozen Four, and winning a national championship is our ultimate goal.
“But we’re taking it day by day. We know what we lost and what we have coming back.”
Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings couldn’t be happier to have Zmolek and McNeely back to anchor the blue line. Northfield native Andy Carroll (33 games) is the only other returning defensemen who played in more than half of MSU’s 38 games last season. Junior Wyatt Aamodt returns after playing in 18 games last season.
While Zmolek and McNeely aren’t asked to add a lot of offense -- they combined for 24 points last season -- their value to the team and program is measured in many other ways beyond the stat sheet.
“Day in and day out I lean on Riese Zmolek and Jack McNeely,” Hastings said. “Riese is a rock. He’s somebody that, from the time he stepped on our campus he has made a positive impact for our program and for our university, whether he’s on the sheet or off it, in the classroom, in the community. … He’s become a security blanket for us.”
The experience and hockey sense of the two senior blue-liners may be their biggest assets this season. Zmolek has played in 111 games in his college career; McNeely has played in 103. Their leadership will be crucial with young players such as sophomore Colby Bukes (two games played last season) and much-heralded freshmen Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone expected to be in the lineup on a nightly basis.
“We need (McNeely and Zmolek) to be example-setters for our young guys and also to be guys we can lean on when things get a little bit tough,” Hastings said. “Those guys have been through a lot of battles, important games, championship seasons and they want to leave here in a very positive manner.”
McNeely and Zmolek will have to be forgiven if they do a double- or triple-take at times early this season when they look across the ice at their defensive partners. Zmolek played nearly every game last season with Scheid, who signed with the Colorado Eagles, the AHL affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. McNeely played nearly every game the past two seasons with Mackey, a Second Team All-American last year.
“I think it’ll be good, a new step for us,” McNeely said of having a new defensive partner. “We’ve had an older defensive corps the last two years, the same group of guys, and it’s good mixing in the freshmen this year. They’re going through the same stuff that all freshmen go through, but they’ve been looking good.”
McNeely and Zmolek have helped MSU win three consecutive regular season championships and one WCHA postseason championship in their three seasons. Neither wants to depart Mankato without creating a different kind of history for the Mavericks.
“They’re looking to promote our program another step,” Hastings said. “They want to get to the NCAA tournament and win a game, and try to compete for a national championship.”