by Matt Gajtka
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The puck went in. The celebration was nearly complete. BK Selects had taken a 3-2 lead with less than three minutes to go in the New York 16U girls state championship game.
Except, they hadn’t. Not according to one of the referees, who ruled the Amherst Knights’ net had been dislodged prior to the goal.
Considering all that was on the line — not only the state title, but also an automatic spot in Nationals at the end of March — that dramatic moment could have easily broken the spirit of the BK Selects.
Instead, the controversial official’s decision seemed to spur them on, as they surged to a 15-1 advantage in shots on goal the rest of the way, capped by the game-winning goal off the stick of Rae Mayer (Chesapeake, Va.) eight minutes into sudden-death overtime.
🚨 THE GOAL THAT WON THE STATE 🚨
Here’s a look at the game-winning strike from Rae Mayer in the 16U New York championship game!
We’re onto @usahockey Nationals, along with the 19Us!@MYHockeyRanking pic.twitter.com/Az2Uo8aAQk
— Bishop Kearney Selects Girls (@BKSelectsGirls) March 6, 2023
“It could’ve gone the other way, but we found another gear,” 16U Head Coach Jake Anderson said. “We took that information (disallowed goal) and moved on. We knew we had this. That’s the moment when I was like, ‘OK, we’re onto something here.’
“That’s the proudest moment you could have as a coach.”
And it’s the happiest moment you could have as a player.
“Honestly, words can’t describe it,” Mayer said. “The energy in the rink was unbelievable and really shows people how much of a family we really are.
“Obviously scoring the OT goal was awesome, but at the end of the day it was a team effort and we did it as a team.”
As is audible on the above embedded video, the BK Selects 19U girls team was stationed right behind the glass for Mayer’s season-extending goal, ready to celebrate their younger cohort joining them in the USA Hockey Nationals, set for March 30-April 3 in the greater Dallas area.
The 19Us — ranked No. 2 nationally — clinched New York themselves with convincing wins of 8-0 over Rome Grizzlies and 11-0 against Buffalo Regals on Saturday, leaving the drama to the 16Us on Sunday, albeit not without significant rooting support.
“The 19U team was absolutely amazing and helped keep the energy up throughout the whole (16U championship) game,” Mayer said, “which I think also helped a lot.”
On top of the late disallowed goal, the 16Us had more reasons to be frustrated near the end of the title tilt.
They outshot Amherst 44-24 through regulation, but Knights goalie Brynn Bacak had matched BK netminder Emeline Grennan (Washington, D.C.) save for save. Still, the Selects carried a 2-1 lead into the final five minutes of the third on goals by Paige Wallace (Huntington, N.Y.) and Megan Meola (Long Valley, N.J.), but a disputed offensive-zone penalty called on BK led to the Amherst equalizer with 3:53 left on the clock.
“It was basically a home game for Amherst,” Anderson said. “When they tied the game, the roof almost came off the place. I felt like if we could’ve gotten that third goal (in regulation), we would’ve scored five or six, but they made it 2-2 and things got crazy.”
But not crazy enough to keep the 16Us from the outcome they worked so hard (and so well) to achieve. And when BK forced a turnover in the neutral zone eight minutes into OT and pushed the puck back up ice one more time, they were rewarded for their efforts.
“Obviously (the disallowed goal) took us all by surprise,” Mayer said. “I think at first, the team was definitely upset about the call but we were able to come back together, realize the moment we were in, and realize the job we had a job to finish.”
Mayer’s sudden-death strike culminated a tense weekend for the 16Us, who knew their No. 11 ranking in USA Hockey wasn’t likely to grant them an at-large bid to Nationals if they didn’t first raise a victory flag at the New York state tourney.
Given that pressure, it would’ve been easy for individual players to take too much upon themselves to be the primary difference-maker. Nevertheless, they took care of the Syracuse Valley Eagles (6-0) and Amherst (5-2) on Saturday, then edged Rome 2-1 on Sunday morning to clinch a return date with Amherst with everything on the line.
“What impressed me most was how we all came together and worked together, even in moments when people could have tried to do it themselves,” said Morgan Walton (Geneseo, N.Y.). “We all had enough discipline to trust everyone and use everyone on the ice to make the right plays.”
Walton admitted she felt the pressure heading into the state tournament, but she didn’t think that was a negative.
“I think knowing that if we would’ve lost, we wouldn’t have made Nationals made me a better player,” she said. “I had to be at my best level to make sure we achieved the right outcome.”
The next challenge will be for both BK Selects girls teams to both recover for the heightened intensity of Nationals and also maintain the edge they’ve sharpened over the course of several months.
For example, the 16Us showed exactly how important conditioning is when — at the end of a draining weekend — they had enough left in the tank to control play against a team just as hungry for a victory as they were.
“We talk about from the first day that conditioning isn’t going to be a variable,” Anderson said. “They put in so much work. We push them when they don’t want to be pushed.
“(The championship game) turned into just a matter of time. Their team couldn’t do it anymore. They had fallen off the edge a little bit. We maintained our pace for longer. Their goalie made a lot of saves, some spectacular, but the conditioning is what got us through.”
In other words, all that sweat they’ve shed since the start of the season was in preparation for this time of year. It’s time to trust that investment and deliver.
“We work everyday and do things that most programs aren’t doing,” Mayer said. “We take pride in the little things and at the end of the day that’s what’s going to win us games. We love playing good teams and are super-excited to see the competition (at Nationals).
“I think we’re prepared.”
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(Top photo: Bella Fanale [left] and Emeline Grennan celebrate with the New York 16U banner. Credit: Christina Colontino/BK Selects)