by Matt Gajtka
DETROIT — There’s nothing that can truly simulate the excitement and stress of the playoffs, but as far as regular-season events go, the Motor City Girls Fest does as good a job as any.
Featuring top Tier I programs from across the country, this event — put on by Premier Ice Prospects — asks teams to play six games in less than 72 hours, if they manage to go all the way to the finals of their respective divisions.
The BK Selects 19U girls achieved that feat, and although they fell in the final to the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers, the fact they pieced together five consecutive victories against quality competition to get to that stage has the team feeling strong in the midst of the stretch run.
“It was a good opportunity to learn where we’re at,” said Bishop Kearney VP of Hockey/19U Girls Head Coach Paul Colontino. “(The Motor City Girls Fest) is hard but it mirrors the (USA Hockey) national tournament. It was a good game in the championship, even if it wasn’t our best, but with the glass half-full we’re able to take some of those things and learn from them.”
With a record of 40-7-5 and a No. 2 ranking in the country, the BK Selects 19U girls would be on anyone’s shortlist of national title contenders. Their only losses over the past two months are to the fourth-ranked Jr. Flyers and 11th-ranked Detroit Little Caesars.
Still, standards are high in these parts, so any bump in the road is examined to make sure the team is in the best possible position to peak by early March.
“We have all been extremely committed to being the best team in the country,” said senior forward Bella Vasseur (Waitsfield, Vt. / University of Wisconsin).
Vasseur led all BK 19U skaters with four goals in the tournament, and tied for the team lead in points (six) with Izzy Krause (Calabasas, Calif.) and defender Molly Jordan (Berlin, Conn. / Boston College). Goalie Michaela Hesová (Hovorcovice, Czechia / Dartmouth College) won all three of her starts and posted a .929 save percentage in teaming with fellow ‘tender Ava McNaughton (Wexford, Pa. / University of Wisconsin).
Colontino noted that Jordan — who last month was named to the IIHF World Under-18 Championship all-tourney team — is playing like “the best defender in the country at this level” and that Vasseur has been “killing it” on the ice. He also complimented his team on keeping spirits high, which is no given after the competitive grind of the past five months.
“We have a good group that has no problem bringing energy every day,” Vasseur said. “We all feed off of it and build on it every day. We’ve had a little adversity and we know what we need to work on: The little things.”
That same brand of self-examination is going on with the 16U girls, who won their first four at Motor City before bowing to sixth-ranked Little Caesars in the semifinal round.
Head Coach Jake Anderson’s team is 39-11-6 and ranked 11th — certainly nothing to turn up your nose at — but the bench boss has had to make sure his players understand the narrow margins of elite girls hockey.
“They want to be in every championship game,” Anderson said, “and when it doesn’t happen they feel like they’re far away. We’ve been telling the players, ‘Just stay with it, because you’re a lot closer than you feel like.’ “
Forwards Rae Mayer (Chesapeake, Va.) and Morgan Walton (Geneseo, N.Y.) paced all BK Selects 16U players in Detroit with five points apiece, while defender Shayla Beaudette (Aurora, Colo.) recorded four.
The 16Us also continued a season-long defensive trend in allowing just six goals in the five games they played at Motor City — a total that includes the two empty-netters given up at the end of the semifinal game. Goalie Emeline Grennan (Washington, D.C.) faced just 43 shots all tournament, a testament to the team’s ability to limit chances.
“Our team is playing a really good team game, especially on the defensive side of the puck,” Anderson, whose team has given up just 62 goals in 56 overall games. “We have to continue to work on generating offense and being consistent through the whole game, but our effort is consistently good.”
As one of the older players on the team, forward Payton Palsa (Annapolis, Md.) has taken charge of additional leadership duties this season.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve learned so much,” she said after notching a pair of assists in Detroit. “It’s so fun and I’ve become a better person. I’m so excited for (the state tournament).”
The New York state tourney is still a few weeks away at the start of March, but ramping up for that occasion is the primary focus of practice this time of year. Also, Anderson said standalone weekend series against high-quality foes like Durham West last month and Pittsburgh Penguins Elite this upcoming weekend help the coaching staff nail down any potential problem spots.
“In the first half of the season, it’s about building the habits of practicing and competing,” Anderson said. “A lot of these players are away from home for the first time in their lives. In the second half, we work more on team concepts.
“How much control do we have on when we peak? I don’t know, but the idea is that you put in enough work for seven months and then it shows up at the end of the season.”
The 19Us are on a similar timetable, although they have the emotions of senior weekend directly ahead before then can fully focus on winning the New York tournament and qualifying for Nationals.
“We’re a very talented group and we have an outstanding culture, collectively,” Colontino said. “Our seniors are doing a phenomenal job in being role models, but I’d say collectively, to a person they’re doing a good job of doing the right thing and saying the right thing.”
One way to look at it is that the pressure amps up this time of year. Another way to look at it is that the rewards level up as well.
“We know our systems well at this point,” Palsa said. “We’ve been working hard as a team, just headed towards that end goal now.
“It’s definitely stressful, trying to perfect everything, but it’s definitely the best time of year!”
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