Saturday, 23 April 2016

Stars raise bar for success

Saskatoon’s SFMAAAHL team truly hits elite status

The Stars give a final salute at the Esso Cup.
    WEYBURN, Sask. - In the current day, trips to the Esso Cup national champion tournament seem like a habit for the Saskatoon Stars, but not that long ago those trips were only a dream.
    On Saturday at Crescent Point Place in Weyburn, the Stars female midget AAA hockey season came to an end after they dropped a 3-0 decision to the De Winton, Alta., based Rocky Mountain Raiders in the bronze medal game of this year’s Esso Cup tournament. The result on the surface feels like a disappointing follow up to the team’s first trip to the national championship tournament a year ago in Red Deer, when the Stars downed the Portage la Prairie based Central Plains Capitals 5-1 to win the bronze medal.
    While the Stars weren’t able to capture a national championship or a medal this year’s Esso Cup, they piled up accomplishments they never achieved during the first eight years of their decade as a member of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League.
    Before the 2014-15 season started, the Stars only hug one banner at their home rink in Saskatoon, the Agriplace Arena. That banner came from winning the tournament title at the prestigious Mac’s Midget AAA tournament in Calgary during the 2010-11 campaign.
    Saskatoon qualified for three straight SFMAAAHL finals from 2010-12, but were never able to win the Fedoruk Cup. That generation of Stars players included the likes of current Canadian senior national team member Emily Clark, Katie Sigurdson, Lauren Zary, Marley Ervine, Sara Greschner, Kennedy Harris, Brooke Mutch and Alyssa Dobler. The latter five of that group moved on to help the University of Saskatchewan Huskies win their first Canada West conference title coming in the 2013-14 campaign.
Defender Willow Slobodzian drives up ice for the Stars.
    During the three year period from 2010-12, the Stars ultimate bar for success was making the SFMAAAHL championship series with the hope that one day the Fedoruk Cup would come to “the Bridge City.”
    In 2013-14, the Stars were a respectable 13-11-4 and were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Swift Current Diamond Energy Wildcats. After that campaign, the Stars reached heights they never thought imaginable.
    Over the course of the past two seasons under head coach Greg Slobodzian, they brought home five more banners to hang in the Agriplace Arena. The 2014-15 campaign saw the Stars capture another Mac’s tournament title, their first SFMAAAHL championship and first Western regional banner. This past season the Stars won their second straight SFMAAAHL title and second Western regional banner.
    They have posted back-to-back 45-win campaigns in the process. To put that in perspective, the rebuilding Saskatoon Blades would almost kill to get back to that point in the Western Hockey League. There are also a few other WHL franchises that are in that same boat.
Captain Danielle Nogier (#15) has provided a lot of grit for the Stars.
    The Stars posted a 45-5 overall record in 2014-15 and followed that up with a 45-13 overall mark in 2015-16.
    A new generation of young standouts took centre stage as the likes of current Canadian under-18 national team member Sophie Shirley, Nara Elia, Emma Johnson, Mackenna Parker, Grace Shirley, Anna Leschyshyn and Willow Slobodzian. The era of the last two seasons is also defined by the gritty determination of this year’s four graduates in captain Danielle Nogier and defenders Rayah DeCorby, Danielle Girolami and Hollie Coumont.
    All of those recent era players likely haven’t hit their peak moments in their hockey careers and unbelievably have the potential to still do much more.
Grace Shirley has become one of the Stars young standouts.
    On Saturday against the Raiders, the Stars fought hard to the end in the bronze medal match of the Esso Cup. They could have very easily exited the first period with a 2-0 lead, as winger Julia Rongve was robbed twice on two great backdoor chances.
    The Raiders slowly started to pull away in the second thanks to a tipped home power-play goal by Hanna Matchett and a tally from Breanne Trotter, which came off an untimely Stars defensive zone giveaway.
    Saskatoon still kept battling, and tried to pull Johnson, who is their money netminder, with 4:13 remaining in the third period. Leschyshyn had a golden chance from point-blank range, but she was stoned by Raiders goalie Kate Lloyd.
    A late third period penalty to Saskatoon forced Johnson to return and remain in the goal. The Raiders sealed their 3-0 win, when Hailey McCallum blasted home a power-play goal to the top corner of the Saskatoon net with 37.6 seconds to play.
Mackenna Parker is one of the Stars top offensive players.
    Johnson turned away 18 shots in the setback and Lloyd turned away 18 shots to earn the shutout.
    In making the Esso Cup in back-to-back years, the Stars have set a new standard of ultimate success that all their future teams will try to emulate. Over the last two seasons, they have almost touched the Esso Cup, and that had to be viewed as impossible at one point in time.
    Winning an Esso Cup has become a very possible reality that future generations of Stars players will strive to achieve.

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