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Year of the Ram: Championship dream ends in semis

Defenseman Aaron Ness, a projected first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, thinks about what could have been after a loss in the third-place game. (Photo by Kim Drown)

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Defenseman Aaron Ness, a projected first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, thinks about what could have been after a loss in the third-place game. (Photo by Kim Drown)

In the book White Fang by Jack London, the titular wolf-dog tears through a slew of other canines in grisly fights, only to be stymied by a bulldog whom he cannot turn over.

This weekend, the Roseau Rams met their bulldog at the worst possible time.

After eviscerating the Blaine Bengals 8-2 in the quarterfinal of the Minnesota state championship, the undefeated Rams came up against the Hill-Murray Pioneers, a private school team from St. Paul.

The Pioneers came out hitting, pushing Roseau and playing on the edge. Teams had gotten physical with the Rams – who boast few bruisers and far more finesse players – earlier in the season, but barrages of goals on ensuing power plays tended to defuse the strategy.

But on this night, it was Hill-Murray that struck first on the power play. Two more goals would come before the Rams would answer with one of their own.

When a goal by Nick Oliver, that would have made the score 3-2, was waved off due to goaltender interference in the third, the writing was on the wall.

“It was a long delay,” said coach Scott Oliver of the video review. “I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”

With desperation sinking in, the Rams pulled their goalie, but Hill-Murray took advantage. When the clock hit zeroes, the numbers just didn’t add up for anyone who had watched the Rams this season: Hill-Murray 6, Roseau 2.

“They smacked us in the mouth with a tough, gritty game,” coach Oliver said. “We were not able to respond as we should have, but I wasn’t disappointed in our effort.”

The next day, the Rams played a third-place game against the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights, but with an undefeated season gone and the chance for back-to-back state titles vanquished, Roseau couldn’t rebound and lost 5-1.

In the “what if?” department, the Rams were dealt a serious blow in the Blaine game, though it was a piece of news that didn’t leave the dressing room.

Midway through the romp over the Bengals, star goaltender Mike Lee, who had never lost a high school game ever, and played all but two of Roseau’s games this year, sustained an injury.

“He pulled his groin pretty bad,” Oliver noted. “We kept it hush-hush, but he wasn’t 100 percent.”

Still, Lee chose to soldier on.

“Mike’s a competitor, he wanted to play,” Oliver said. “We had him wrapped and he wasn’t going to sit out.”

In the end, Roseau carried a 42-game win streak across two seasons. The Rams went 25-0-0 in the regular season and swept through the section 8AA playoffs.

Defenseman Aaron Ness, now projected to be a first round NHL draft pick this summer, was awarded the prestigious Mr. Hockey title by a panel of NHL scouts and NCAA coaches, as well as being named Minnesota Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

As the team bus solemnly neared Roseau city limits, it was escorted into town by state patrol cars and a fire truck. A caravan of cars stretching a mile back followed the Rams’ bus and a ‘welcome home’ rally went off as planned.

“The community,” Oliver noted, “unconditionally loves their team.”

And while the season is over, hockey doesn’t stop in Roseau.

Select teams for 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds will be chosen to play nationally. Aaron Ness is slated to play for Team USA at the Under-18s in Russia. Mike Lee, Tyler Landman and Ben Nelson will likely be drafted into the United States League and face decisions on where to play in the future. Nick Oliver, already drafted by the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, will also do some planning. The annual Rams alumni game will hit Memorial Arena.

So while the season may be over, the Year of the Ram is far from finished.

The Hockey News will be following the Roseau Rams high school hockey team every week, chronicling its journey on the road back to the state championship and providing an inside look at what its like to be a teenager on one of the most fabled varsity teams in America.

Click HERE to read previous Year of the Ram stories.

For more great stories and features like this, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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