by Matt Gajtka
PITTSBURGH — When you make it as far as the Bishop Kearney Selects girls teams did, the end of a season often seems like a paradox.
Do you celebrate the achievement, in this case, earning your place in the knockout round of USA Hockey’s national tournament? Or do you lament how close you came to standing atop the mountain?
How about both?
Although the BK Selects 16U and 19U squads ultimately did not bring trophies back from Nationals — with the younger group getting closer by making the championship game — this season provided even more evidence that the program has established itself as a perennial contender in elite girls hockey.
“The girls put up a goal at the beginning of the year to play for a national championship,” said 16U head coach Jake Anderson. “This year showed all that work come to fruition. They bought in and played for each other and not themselves. Extremely proud.”
The 16Us, who finished the season with a nation-leading 55 victories, sustained their lone loss of the 16-team tournament Monday morning at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, with Minnesota Gray pulling away for a 5-2 win in the title tilt.
But the indelible, symbolic image of the tournament for BK Selects will undoubtedly be Greta Brezenski’s overtime game-winner in the semifinal round the day before. The 16Us trailed the Michigan-based powerhouse Little Caesars 2-0 entering the third, but goals from Lucia DiGirolamo (Woburn, Mass.) and Morgan Walton (Geneseo, N.Y.) in the third forced extra time.
Not only did Brezenski’s in-tight strike deliver the 16Us’ first win over Little Caesars in two years, it also happened with most of the 19U team standing 10 feet away behind the glass.
“I was so zoned into the game,” said Brezenski (Waunakee, Wisc.), who also assisted on Walton’s short-handed equalizer. “I was so laser-focused on scoring. I did not want the season to end without our team proving just how great we are.”
The older group had been knocked out of the tourney the previous day by eventual national champion Little Caesars 19U, but that disappointment didn’t keep them from being there to start the party.
“We got back to the locker room,” DiGirolamo said, “and the 19s were waiting in there to celebrate with us. That’s just a fun thing I’ll remember forever. We are one program and I think having both teams there made a huge difference.”
“You don’t plan those moments, but they just happen,” Anderson said. “The ‘BK Family’ is what we talk about and the programs have really embraced that. It becomes bigger than the individual.”
Brezenski, who scored five goals and assisted on four others in six Nationals games, also notched the sudden-death winner in the final game of round-robin play, vanquishing the East Coast Wizards and allowing BK to finish tops in its four-team group.
Nattys U16 Day 4 RMU picks: @BKSelectsGirls
⭐️ #33 Michaela Hesova G
⭐️⭐️ #24 Lucia DiGirolamo F
⭐️⭐️⭐️#2 Finley McCarthy F
Nice win 👏🏼 @usahockey @neutralzoneW pic.twitter.com/HQnKj0WajC
— NZ_W_NE (@NZW_NE) April 3, 2022
Finley McCarthy (Whitefish, Mont.) paced the national runner-ups with 10 points (3g, 7a), while twins Lucia and Angelina each netted four goals and three assists. Michaela Hesova (Hovorčovice, Czechia) started five of the six games, sporting a .902 save percentage.
Even counting the championship defeat, the 16Us won 18 of their last 20 games. Mind you, most of those games were played under postseason stress, plus the self-imposed pressure to deliver Bishop Kearney’s first girls hockey national title.
“We showed a lot of perseverance and resilience,” Brezenski said. “We were very much seen as the underdog by a lot of people and I don’t think they thought we would make the (national) final. I am so proud of us for showing everyone what the BK brand of hockey is.”
The fight for the top of an increasingly-deep girls hockey landscape will continue, with BK Selects one of a handful of programs who have proven to be there at the end year after year.
That, of course, goes for the 19Us as well. While head coach Paul Colontino’s group didn’t finish atop the nation, they did deliver another state championship along with two other tournament triumphs and a 44-17-3 overall record.
“Our last game was against the best, and we’re right there with them,” said Colontino, who wrapped his first season as Bishop Kearney’s VP of Hockey. “The part I liked was how hard we battled. A quarter-inch here and a quarter-inch there could’ve made a huge difference.”
Senior Laila Edwards (Cleveland Heights, Ohio/Wisconsin) wrapped up her BK career by leading the team with six points (1g, 5a) in four games. Junior Peyton Compton (Sanford, Fla./Northeastern) scored the Selects’ lone goal of the semifinal and finished with three in the tournament, pacing the squad.
Day 2 Nattys RMU, morning U19 shooting stars.
⭐️ Selects #22 F Peyton Compton @BKSelectsGirls
⭐️⭐️ JR Flyers #16 F Giavanna Mancy @jrflyers_girls
⭐️⭐️⭐️ NAHA #47 D Skylar Shartman @nahahockey pic.twitter.com/ksNClXIAjD
— NZ_W_NE (@NZW_NE) April 1, 2022
Junior goalie Ava McNaughton (Wexford, Pa./Wisconsin) was strong between the pipes while playing every minute of all four Nationals games, posting a .924 save percentage.
“I’m still really proud of the team and how we always stuck together,” said German-born senior forward Nina Christof, who will attend RPI in the fall. “It’s still without a doubt a major accomplishment. A lot of time we lose this view because we are so focused on becoming the national champion.
“Our coaches do a great job of making sure that we know no matter what happens at the end of the year, we had a great season and have evolved as a person as well as a hockey player.”
From the holistic perspective, 2021-22 was a banner year for BK. All six teams — both girls and boys — qualified for Nationals, with the 16U boys breaking through for the school’s first USA Hockey crown.
Furthermore, all six teams made the national quarterfinals, with three teams getting as far as the semis and two advancing to the final game of the season. On the trail to the summit, Bishop Kearney has set up a sizable base camp.
“The rate of growth is exponential,” Colontino said. “We’re really pleased with the success of the teams and the program as a whole. A fantastic season.”
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