Nobody in the state of North Dakota had an answer for Grand Forks Central's top line of Joey Kennelly, Braden Panzer and Chase Spicer this season.
The trio finished 1-2-3 in the state in scoring --no player in the state came within 19 points of any of them -- and they capped their season by teaming up for the overtime winner in the state championship game.
As it turns out, it's not just the state of North Dakota that didn't have an answer for them.
The senior forwards dominated the CCM Boys National Invitational Tournament in the Twin Cities last weekend, leading Team North Dakota to its first-ever title in the event.
The all-star team of North Dakota high school players beat all-star teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan en route to winning the title.
Kennelly had a hat trick in the final against Minnesota U18s and finished with a tournament-high seven goals in four games. Panzer had four assists in the final and led the tournament with 10 points. Spicer had three assists in the championship and finished with seven points.
"I think it was tremendous for them," said Grant Paranica, who coaches Central and helped put together Team North Dakota. "I also think it speaks to the level of play we have. Our best players can compete with anyone across the country. Minnesota has a tremendous talent bed. A lot of talented kids are there. And our top kids can play right with them. I think that's a good thing."
The NIT is an annual event, where prep hockey players can showcase themselves in front of junior hockey scouts and, in a non-pandemic year, college hockey coaches. It features players who don't join up with United States Hockey League or North American Hockey League teams at the end of their prep seasons.
There were eight teams at the tournament this year -- two from Minnesota, two from Michigan, two from Wisconsin, one from Colorado and one from North Dakota. The Colorado team was coached by George Gwozdecky, who led the University of Denver to two NCAA national championships.
"On one hand, it's just one tournament and one good year could mean just that," Paranica said. "But I think what it means for our programs is that we can grow kids in North Dakota. They don't have to go someplace else. They can compete on that stage. We've got good players here. If they stay and work hard and keep at it, they can get opportunities as well. You don't need to go someplace where you think the grass is maybe greener. It's pretty green right here, too."
Team North Dakota was heavily comprised of Grand Forks players, including its entire defensive core: Carson Caulfield (Central), Dillon Kuntz (Central), Joseph Riskey (Central), Carson Seng (Central), Cooper Freije (Red River) and Wyatt LeDuc (Red River).
In addition to Central's big line, Grand Forks' Brendan White (Central), Dominic Gerzewski (Central) and Jake Grandstrand (Red River) played forward, as did Grafton's Landon Carter.
The team was coached by Chad Dahlen and Jake Brandt.
North Dakota beat Michigan 18s 4-1 on Thursday, topped the Minnesota Seniors 7-2 on Friday, knocked off Wisconsin 18s 6-3 on Saturday, then beat Minnesota U18s 5-2 on Sunday.
"When we do get some of our top kids out, we can compete with some of the best classes of high school players in the country," Paranica said. "Minnesota is the pinnacle. It's community-based like we are. They produce a tremendous amount of talent. We're a small state with 20 high schools that play hockey and our top kids are able to compete there. It's a good thing. It's good for hockey and good for our state."