As the clock hit zero on the Boys Section 3AA Final Thursday night at Braemar Arena, the St. Thomas Academy Cadets found themselves in a familiar position. Their blue and white gear covered the ice as they celebrated a 4-1 victory over the Eagan Wildcats, punching a ticket to the biggest dance in all of high school sports.
“They are all just, different,” said co-head coach Tom Vannelli following the game, reflecting on their tournament runs in the past. “They’re amazing, it’s something that is hard to describe.”
Tom and his brother Greg took over the Cadets program as co-head coaches in 2003, and since that time the team has made 11 appearances in the Boys State High School Hockey Tournament, claiming five state titles. The program has flourished on the big stage, featuring a seasoned roster of players who have taken the ice in front of 18,000-plus at the Xcel Energy Center each of the past three seasons.
But this year is different for the Cadets. The Vannellis announced back in January that this would be their final year at the helm of the perennial powerhouse. In a press release from Jan. 10, the brothers made the announcement that Tom Vannelli will be stepping away from hockey, but Greg Vannelli will stay involved to help transition to the new coach and continue teaching and coaching golf at the Academy, according to David La Vaque of the Star Tribune.
The Cadets possess creativity in the offensive zone, strong team defense and two hot goaltenders.
“I think it was my job situation, my family situation, I needed to focus a little more on that,” Tom Vannelli explained when asked about why now, in the middle of another great season and a state tournament berth ahead. “Even though I love coaching, I put in a good run with it, and I just thought the timing might be right.”
In their final season, the bench boss duo has their team riding a 16-game winning streak into the tourney with an even balance of size and speed. The Cadets possess creativity in the offensive zone, strong team defense and two hot goaltenders, a traditional mold for St. Thomas Academy since the Vannellis took over.
“We have special team defense, and that’s not just the defensemen,” Greg Vannelli describes when discussing how their formula translates into the State Tournament. “It seems like we’re averaging one goal a game against us and if we can keep that up, that is a really positive sign. The goalies, defense and, plus, we have a little mix of physicality to our team; we’re not just a skating team. It’s a good situation.”
The Cadets are again a formidable force in 2019, but this level of success and dedication to the team year after year doesn’t come by accident. The Vannellis have created a level of expectation within their program that playing into March isn’t the end game, but just another step towards the ultimate goal.
“Honestly, they love each other,” Tom Vannelli said when asked what makes this group special. “They really get it. They get that it’s a team that is going to get the job done, not the individual.”
That commitment to playing with expectations — not only to enjoy the journey but to never lose sight of the end goal — is a consistent message with the Vannellis.
“We’ve been to a lot of tournaments,” said Greg Vannelli. “We know that it’s not just getting there. Now we’re at a point in our program we want to do well, and we’re going to go in with the thought we are as good as any team. We’re not going to get over-excited with just getting there. I think that’s the maturity of our program that does that.”
You can feel the message resonating with their players. After the section final victory, multiple players can be seen gesturing towards their student section with three fingers mouthing the words “Three more.” Leaving the ice, players head to their locker room with that same message: “Three more games, three more games, boys.”
“That’s fantastic,” Greg Vannelli said after being told his guys had that mentality. “It’s a long journey. That’s why I feel as anxious for these games every year. It doesn’t matter how many times we have been in the section finals, it’s just a really nerve-racking experience. I’m amazed at how these guys can handle pressure, and somehow new guys rise up every year. It’s amazing, it really is.”
“We decided this was going to be our last year and then to have it go the distance, it’s pretty special.”
The players and coaches alike aren’t satisfied with just making the tournament. They hold themselves to reaching the goals set by the teams that came before them, staying hungry for the chance to celebrate another state title for their school. For each other.
So with all the past success, is this year different? Does this year mean just a little bit more for two coaches who have seen so much success, so many highs over their time at St. Thomas Academy?
“This one, it’s surreal, really,” Tom said with a sense of excitement. “We decided this was going to be our last year and then to have it go the distance, it’s pretty special.”
In the beginning of this story that is now coming to the final chapter, could the 2003 versions of these coaches ever have envisioned the amount of success they have achieved?
“I didn’t,” Greg laughs. “I remember the first state tournament we won, and a guy asked us that question. He said ‘Did you ever expect this?’ and I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ I just thought we would get guys competitive, and I know Tom’s competitive nature. We would just help guys learn about the game. I never thought this would happen.”
And what about the legacy that the Vannellis hope they are leaving behind when they step off the bench for the final time?
“I hope that it’s a legacy that describes if you work hard, play hard, play smart and play as a team, there is really no limit to what you can do,” said Tom Vannelli.
No matter how their final game ends, Tom and Greg Vannelli have created a winning culture that is primed to live on. A legacy that will be felt within the St. Thomas Academy program for years to come.