Saturday, 11 April 2015

Stars write inspiring story

Brittany Heuchert, left, and Hollie Coumont celebrate with the Fedoruk Cup.
    The Saskatoon Stars can do no wrong.
    It seems like everything the Bridge City based female midget AAA hockey club does turns to gold.
    Coming into the 2014-15 campaign, the Stars have traditionally been a strong club in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League. They won a Mac's tournament title in 2011. They made three straight league finals appearances from 2010 to 2012, but an SFMAAAHL title eluded them.
    The Stars were a respectable 13-11-4 in 2013-14, but they were swept away in the first round of the playoffs by Swift Current.
    It was reasonable to assume they would contented to appear in the league finals in 2014-15. Not even the most bright-eyed optimist could have seen the dream season that was to come.
    During the regular season, they topped the SFMAAAHL standings with a franchise best 25-3 record. They were 6-0 at the Mac's tournament winning the event's title game for the second time in team history. In the SFMAAAHL playoffs, the Stars brought their game up another level downing three determined opponents in posting a 9-0 record to win the Fedoruk Cup.
    They will play in their first ever appearance at the Esso Cup national championship tournament, which runs April 19-25 in Red Deer, Alta.
Kianna Dietz celebrates scoring a goal for the Stars.
    As the journey through the season progressed, it looked the Stars enjoyed every moment of it. No matter what point in the season it was, you could see there was a special pure love for the game. When the playoffs came around, there was an excited and maybe even innocent attitude from the players that if they won this big game they would get to play in another big game and it was all great.
    When it was game time, they were the determined and focused team, where everyone stepped up to contribute. When they won trophies celebrating the Mac's and league title wins, they were your classic energetic and excited group of teenage girls aged 14 to 18. They were almost bouncing off the walls due to just being pumped up because they won.
    Another cool thing is there was no arrogance either, when they claimed victory. They acted with a legitimate belief that it was super cool they were experiencing success, and they should feel that way.
    Offensively, they were led Nara Elia and Sophia Shirley, who played for the team as 14-year-old rookies in 2013-14 and blossomed into superstars in 2014-15 as sophomores.
    Elia, who was the SFMAAAHL's most sportsmanlike player, led the league in scoring with 23 goals and 17 assists, while Shirley, who was the SFMAAAHL's most valuable player, came in second in league scoring with 22 goals and 17 assists. They raised their respective games to another level in the SFMAAAHL playoffs.
    In the league championships series against the Prince Albert A & W Bears, they were key. Game 1 of the best-of-five series went to overtime, and Shirley set up Elia, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, for the winner to give the Stars a 3-2 victory.
Emma Johnson covers up a loose puck for the Stars.
    Shirley put the team on her back in Game 2 in Prince Albert scoring twice and adding an assist in a 3-0 victory. In the nine SFMAAAHL playoff games the Stars participated in, Shirley had 12 goals and 12 assists.
    Julia Rongve has found her niche being a nice fit as the third forward on the line with the dynamic duo of Elia and Shirley. Rongve picked up six goals and seven assists in nine post-season games.
    Every championship playoff run also needs some X-factors to emerge, and Saskatoon received key contributions from the supporting cast in big moments.
    During the SFMAAAHL championship clinching victory over the Bears, the Stars went ahead 1-0 in the second period, when 15-year-old rookie forward Kianna Dietz set up fellow rookie Jordyn Gerlitz. Just 14 seconds later, Dietz potted a key insurance goal to give Saskatoon a 2-0 victory. Due to how their birthdays fell, both Dietz and Gerlitz still have three more years of eligibility at the midget AAA level, so big moments like these are not necessarily expected at this point in their careers.
    Thanks to how strong the team has played, the Stars goaltenders often can be overlooked. During the post-season, 15-year-old sophomore Emma Johnson carried most of the workload and made a number of big saves in the semifinal and championship rounds.
Courtney Cormack clears the puck out of her own zone.
    In the SFMAAAHL title clinching win, Johnson ensured the 2-0 lead her team held didn't evaporate in the third period. The Bears came on with a serious third-period push and outshot the Stars 8-1 through about the first eight minutes of the frame. Johnson turned away every big challenge to help her side withstand the Prince Albert surge of pressure to ensure the shutout would hold.
    Karlee Fetch, the Stars 17-year-old veteran goalie, came through with a big 25-save performance, when Saskatoon swept away the Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats in the league semifinal series with a 3-2 victory in Game 3 of that best-of-five set.
    The team's second line of Brittany Heuchert, Danielle Nogier and Courtney Cormack have become the defensive shutdown unit. When the Stars are holding a one or two goal edge in the final minute of the third period, that trio hits the ice to seal up the final result. They also added timely offence combining for 12 goals and 11 assists in the team's nine playoff games.
    When veteran defender Jenna Nash, who recently turned 18, was lost for the season tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee playing for Saskatchewan at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C., in February, it appeared the Stars would have a big hole on their back end. While no one person could replace Nash, the Stars defenders Paige Michalenko, Willow Slobodzian, Hollie Coumont, Rayna Jacobson and Danielle Girolami as a collective all brought their play to a higher level to make up for the loss of Nash.
    The team's coaching staff of head coach Greg Slobodzian and assistant coaches Patrick Nogier, Don Rongve and Jason Schneider have all done a stellar job working with this group of young athletes. The fact the chemistry on the team is so good has to go to the fact the coaches have created an environment that allows their players to reach their potential.
The Stars celebrate a goal by Hollie Coumont, second from left.
    Away from the rink, the Stars have been supported by a spectacular group of parents. They are there positively supporting their daughters but have never been pushy.
    The parents have enjoyed watching their children have success but have never demanded attention due to that success. The fathers and mothers have been humble in victory.
    At times, they had to go beyond the call of duty in support, which included driving their kids to Calgary on Christmas day to take part in the Mac's tournament. Money can be tight for female midget AAA hockey teams, and this move allowed the Stars to save some funds.
    The Stars have enjoyed a season to remember, but all good things do come to an end. If they make the final of the Esso Cup, they will play a maximum of seven more games together over a period of seven days. If the rest of this season is any indication, you can bet they will enjoy every day of that national championship tournament.
    They have bested every obstacle they have faced. It is not that far-fetched to see them playing at an even higher level and taking part in one more championship trophy winning celebration as the top female midget AAA hockey team in Canada.

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