Ely Pee Wees bound for state

Coach Andrew Saarela, Eli Olson, Kaiden Zupancich, Wesley Sandy, Jace Huntbatch, Coach John Payne, Peyton Gregory, Garrett Rohr, Alex Merriman, Deegan Richards, Drew Marolt, Ty Walker, Brecken Sandberg, Blake Schaller, Owen Brekke, Tommy Homer, Anya Moger, Ely Hall and goalie Ben Leeson

by Tom Coombe
“Why not us? Why not Ely?”
Andrew Saarela’s message to his Ely Pee Wee “B” hockey team in the final period of Sunday’s region title game was simple and to the point, and the future Timberwolves responded.
First, Andrew Marolt came through with an acrobatic goal that broke a four-all deadlock, and goaltender Ben Leeson followed by stopping everything Rogers White had to throw at him.
When the horn sounded, Ely had a 5-4 victory, a regional title and a trip to next weekend’s state tournament at Plymouth.
An emotional Ely celebration capped three days of nail-biting for the group of 11-to-13-year-old hockey players, and their parents and fans.
Tight wins over Duluth East and St. Francis/North Branch set up the title-winning showdown at Coleraine.
“It was an amazing weekend,” said Saarela, a student at Vermilion Community College. “Our players played so hard, the emotions were so high and the games were all close. I can’t express how proud I am of these kids.”
After sweeping through the district tournament on their home ice two weekends earlier, Ely had a high seed for the eight-team regional, which featured teams from much larger schools.
The future Timberwolves went in with a bit of an underdog mentality.
“I knew we had a chance in every game,” said Saarela. “We had great goaltending, and anything can happen on any given day.”
Leeson faced over 110 shots for the weekend including more than 40 in both the semifinal and championship game wins.
He also came up big in a 3-1, first-round triumph against Duluth East.
“Things got chippy and emotions ran high at the end, but it was a great game for our team and it got us some confidence... Ben Leeson played amazing all weekend. He kept us in those games, battled for us and sucked up those rebounds. It was amazing the way he played all weekend.”
Ely survived a few hairy moments in the semifinals and took down St. Francis/North Branch 3-2.
“They had a great team and ended up getting the second seed out of our region to go to state,” Saarela said of St. Francis/North Branch. “They were one of two teams out of the Cities, but I told the guys to believe in the process and believe in themselves and that we could get it done.”
Sunday’s matchup with Rogers White was another drama-filled encounter, with Deegan Richards getting the hat trick for Ely.
It was 4-4 when Marolt put the Wolves on top to stay.
“Drew Marolt got a breakaway, got tripped and scored from his stomach,” said Saarela. “By some miracle it went in.”Ely hung on, holding off the Rogers team and securing the program’s first state berth in four years.
“I just sprinted on to the ice and half of the kids were crying,” said Saarela. “It just shows how the kids care about the game of hockey. Parents were crying afterward, but it was tears of joy.”
Richards had four goals for the tournament while Marolt finished with two goals and five assists.
Kadein Zupancich added two goals while Jace Huntbatch, Wesley Sandy, Blake Schaller and Garrett Rohr added points during the weekend.
Other team members are Owen Brecke, Tommy Homer, Ely Hall, Anya Moger, Brecken Sandberg, Alex Merriman, Ty Walker, Peyton Gregory and Eli Olson.
John Payne assists Saarela with the coaching duties.
Ely will be in a familiar role Friday when it takes on another hockey heavyweight in the state tournament.
“We play Moorhead Black,” said Saarela. “They are going to be a great team, but all of the teams there are going to be great. Some have beat some of the teams that crushed us during the season. We have to go down there with the mind set that we can win and believe in this town, believe in ourselves.”
The Pee Wees honed up for regionals with a scrimmage against some of Ely’s high school players, and the regional title has set off a torrent of hockey fever in the community.
A $20 per ticket raffle is underway to help the team generate funds for its trip south, and the win has caught the attention of hockey followers, Ely alumni and the community as a whole.
The Pee Wees are taking it all in stride and have a business-like approach to what will be an experience of a lifetime.
“It all starts with believing in themselves,” said Saarela. “We came to regionals with one reason and that was to punch our ticket to the state tournament and that’s what we did.”
Other first-round matchups Friday pit Chaska/Chanhassen against Orono, Stillwater to meet Eden Prairie and Bagley against St Francis/North Branch.