Apollo Hockey’s Large Senior Class Excelling Under Coach Matanich [VIDEO]
The Apollo Eagles are currently ranked third in the state of Minnesota in Class A hockey and have made two trips to the state tournament in the past three seasons. Despite the success, this may be the last season for Apollo hockey as we know it.
The Eagles ended a 28-year state tournament drought with a trip back to St. Paul in 2013. Apollo lost to eventual champion St. Thomas Academy in the first round of the tourney, then fell to Rochester Lourdes the next day in the consolation game.
After losing to the Alexandria Cardinals in the section tournament the following season, the Eagles made a return trip to the X in 2015. Senior Brandon Bissett scored in overtime to give Apollo a 1-0 win and it's first ever win in the tournament.
Bissett says that he has been coming to Apollo games since he was a little kid, and can see that the culture has changed.
"Ever since youth hockey, we'd come to the MAC to watch the Eagles play," Bissett said. "They may not have won every game, but they were a fun team to watch."
Senior defenseman Tanner Breidenbach said he appreciates the tradition they have built for the Apollo hockey program.
"It's been awesome. The tradition with Apollo, going to the state tournaments especially, is really special for us and the school," Breidenbach said.
The Eagles currently have 15 seniors on the team, one junior, four sophomores and two freshman. This lack of underclassmen has forced the senior class to spend time on the junior varsity as well.
Having the big group of seniors does have its advantages. The Eagles bring a familiarity and family mentality that normally takes years to develop.
"They all know what their roles are and have accepted their roles," Matanich said. "They do a great job and work hard in practice."
"They give each other a hard time, too, which makes for a fun atmosphere."
Senior Skyler Rieland says he relishes playing with his fellow seniors.
"We all know each other very well, we've been playing with each other our whole lives," Rieland said. "We are close, and that makes it fun."
Senior forward Gino Lucia joined the team as a sophomore, and says that playing with a big group of seniors has been beneficial.
"We just keep building off of each other," Lucia said. "Now that we have 15 seniors, we know what it's like, and it's big that we are leaders and know what to do."
The team also spends a lot of time with each other off of the ice.
"We have been really fortunate the last five years or so that the guys have really come together as a group," Matanich said. "That's something we stress: you don't have to be best friends with the guy, but you do have to respect the guy next to you."
"It's fun, it's good to see. They pick up the younger guys and give them rides to games and practices or if they are going to do fun stuff," Matanich said. "It's a good environment."
Pete Matanich is an Apollo guy through and through, despite a short stint as an assistant coach with the rival Tech Tigers shortly after high school.
"The nine years I was (at Tech) were great, my assistants are all Tech guys," Matanich said. "I owe a whole lot to (former Tech coach) Chad Hommerding, he's the one who gave me the opportunity at 20 years old to be a varsity assistant coach."
"Since then I have grown and gotten my own program," Matanich continued. "I have been able to grow this program, it's been fun to come back to my alma mater and try to get it back to where it was in the 80's and 90's."
"The first couple years were a struggle for everyone," Matinch explains. "I was new to them, and they didn't play with the same expectations that I have now, but we've grown every year."
Matanich says that he hopes not only to coach kids to excel on-ice, but also to become well-rounded adults when they leave the program.
"I feel like the life lessons that you can teach kids throughout the time that you have them are very important to get across at that age. Hopefully they can take those forward," Matanich said.
"Hopefully you can instill some work ethic, determination and commitment as we move forward," he said.
Talk to the Eagles' seniors this season and they will tell you how much they have learned from coach Matanich.
"I've learned more from (Matanich) in these past three years than I did all throughout youth hockey," Lucia said after a recent practice. "I'd do anything for him."
"I think he's one of the greatest coaches in the state of Minnesota," Lucia concluded.
Breidenbach says playing for coach Matanich has been "awesome."
"I've learned so much from him, the past four years have just been great," Breidenbach beamed.
Senior goaltender Nick Althaus has been the Eagles' starting goalie since eighth grade.
"Pete's a great coach, he's got a great defense for us," Althaus said. "He knows a lot about the game and is a great coach, a great leader."
The Eagles have two pairs of brothers on the team getting heavy varsity minutes: The Rielands, sophomore Carter and senior Skylar, and the Bissetts, sophomore Noah and senior Brandon.
Noah Bissett says that he has been playing hockey with his brother his whole life and relishes the experience.
"Playing youth hockey, watching him play (the first couple years of high school), now playing with him... It's great," Noah said.
Carter Rieland shares the sentiment of Noah, saying that it's awesome to be on the same team with Skyler.
"It's pretty awesome, hanging out at the rink with him and playing hockey with him," Carter said.
THE UNKNOWN ROAD AHEAD
With shrinking participation numbers and a current varsity roster with only 22 players, it is more than likely that the Eagles will combine forces with Tech high school as soon as next year to field a varsity team.
One of the issues Apollo faces is the fact that there are three schools in St. Cloud competing for players from the local youth hockey association (Apollo, Tech and Cathedral), as well as three more schools/programs located in the area (Sartell, Sauk Rapids-Rice and River Lakes).
"Having one association feed three high schools is tough," coach Pete Matanich said. "You never know what your numbers are going to be each year, and with us we scrounge and scrape up whatever players we can."