ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Nate Warner is not 100% healthy, but he is grateful.
A year ago, Warner was just coming back from an upper body injury that would require offseason surgery to repair. Despite that, he helped the St. Cloud Cathedral boys hockey team win its first Class A state title.
He had the surgery, did rehabilitation for the injury and ... then suffered another upper body injury that required surgery to repair before this season started. Warner suffered that injury playing in the seventh game of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League in September.
The diagnosis on that injury was not good.
"That was pretty devastating because we were told that maybe January, we would get him back," Crusaders coach Derrick Brown said. "He just rehabbed and — I don't know what he did — but all of a sudden, two games in and he says he's ready. And he's been ready. Ever since he's been in the lineup, he's been an incredible player.
"I looked it up and, in the last two years, when we've had Nate Warner in the lineup, we've only been beat twice," said Brown, whose team is 37-2-1 in that span. "I don't bring that up, but I feel pretty confident when he's there. He just makes everyone around him so much better."
Playing Alexandria for title, part 4
Warner has three goals and three assists in the Crusaders' first two Section 6A playoff wins. Top-seeded Cathedral (22-3-1) plays second-seeded Alexandria (19-8) for the section title at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27 at Municipal Athletic Complex in St. Cloud.
This will be the fourth straight section championship matchup between the two teams. During the regular season, Cathedral picked up a 5-2 win Jan. 27 at Alexandria.
"We need to get off to a good start, get through the first five minutes and get the nerves out," Warner said. "We know we can be the better team when we're playing like we should."
When that is happening, Warner often leads the way. He's second on the team in goals (28), assists (37) and points (65) and all of those numbers are the best in his career. The University of Minnesota recruit has 91 goals, 119 assists for 210 points in 98 career high school games.
So what is it that makes him special on the ice?
"His rink sense, his vision, his hands, his speed — it's everything," Brown said. "As he moves on, he's going to be a guy who — at every level, every team he goes to — guys are going to want to play with him. He elevates people.
"If he needs to be the guy who is distributing, he'll do that. If he's the guy who needs to take the shots, he's done that for us. He fills any kind of role you want within a line and he'll be a top six (forward) at the next level ... He's really fun to watch. I've seen him at High Performance (camps) with the best kids in the state and the higher the level, the more skilled it gets out there, the more you notice the little things that even we, as coaches, take for granted.
"He makes a lot of things that are very difficult look very simple."
Staying in the lineup
What Warner has not taken for granted has been his ability to stay in the lineup since he played his first game of the season on Dec. 6.
"It's been nice this season not having anything come up," he said of his health. "I'm feeling good every game. It's been a luxury almost to feel good after each game.
"I can play how I want to play without those nagging injuries. Going through all the rehabs, I'm feeling a lot stronger physically and mentally."
But Warner admits that he has made a few adjustments to make sure that he has stayed in the lineup.
"I've been working on controlling the puck better, using my body so that I'm not taking big blows," said Warner, who is 6 feet and weights about 175 pounds. "There's different ways to protect the puck without being vulnerable."
That could help his game in the long term. His junior hockey rights are owned by the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stampede of the Tier I United States Hockey League, the top league for college eligible players.
If he can get through the offseason healthy, Brown is convinced that Warner can be an impact player in that league.
"He's really had to play a different way because he's still not 100 percent," Brown said. "He'll have to go through some more rehab and continue to strengthen his body.
"He really does a good job of being cognizant of he can't really put himself in that spot, but then he'll move the puck, make a play and then get over. As the season has gone on, he's gotten more comfortable with taking some more hits. He'll have to learn to play a little more on the walls as he goes up to the USHL and play hockey in the Big Ten.
"But he's so smart and he's so skilled that I firmly believe thatm when he's able to get at the rehab and do the muscle building that he's going to have to go through, that the sky is the limit."
Warner said there is a chance he could play some junior hockey this season after his high school season ends, but he is focused on trying to help the Crusaders make their third trip to state in his four seasons. And he's glad that senior center Jack Smith has recently come back from an upper body injury to reunite with him on a line with senior wing Blake Perbix.
"For me and Blake, puck movement just works a whole lot better with Smith in between us two and I think the creativity is kind of endless between us three," Warner said of Smith, who is a Minnesota Duluth recruit. "I love the offensive zone and the neutral zone, get up and down the ice and make plays and a lot of passing plays."