by Matt Gajtka
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — “The hay is in the barn.”
That’s how BK Selects 19U forward Finley McCarthy (Whitefish, Mont. / University of Wisconsin) described the feeling as the No. 2-ranked team in the country enters final preparations for the upcoming USA Hockey Nationals, to take place March 30-April 3 in greater Dallas.
In other words, there’s little use for cramming this time of the year. If you’ve put in the work throughout the course of the season, it’ll show when the puck is dropped.
If not … well, that’ll show, too.
But, that’s not to say there isn’t time for a little more fuel in the ol’ inspiration tank.
Fortunately, the 19Us (and the 16Us, for that matter) had a wonderful opportunity to get a vicarious uplift as they watched three former BK players lift the NCAA Division I national championship trophy. Behind an early goal from BK alum Kirsten Simms, the University of Wisconsin defeated defending champion Ohio State University last week, 1-0, in the culmination of the Frozen Four.
Not only did Simms (at BK from 2018-20), Laila Edwards (2018-22) and Caroline ‘K.K.’ Harvey (2016-20) all play significant roles for the victorious Badgers, Ohio State’s Lauren Bernard (2018-19) and Minnesota’s Emma Conner (2016-19) also played on Frozen Four teams this year.
“Watching that was insane,” said BK Selects senior forward Bella Vasseur (Waitsfield, Vt.), one of three Wisconsin commits on the 19U team. “Seeing girls that I know and have played with perform and do huge things on the big stage was surreal. I think seeing them win, being the underdogs, cemented in my head that anything is possible (at Nationals).”
Certainly, it didn’t take a miracle for Wisconsin — now seven-time national champs — to defeat fellow D-I titan Ohio State in a winner-take-all showdown, but the fact is that hockey includes more variability than most team sports, so a player must be prepared for something to go wrong.
Add in the pressure of a big spot, whether it be the USA Hockey Nationals or the NCAA Frozen Four, and there’s a lot of emotion that has to be managed.
Certainly Harvey, who not only has played in five international competitions for Team USA, but also scored the overtime winner in Wisconsin’s semifinal victory over rival Minnesota, would have some insight on the matter.
“What matters is the next shift ahead and doing my job to the best of my ability to help my teammates and my team,” Harvey said. “Thinking ahead of what’s on the line, playing for the title or a medal, only makes me more nervous, so i’ve learned to be more present in big moments and focus on the next shift.”
Simms, who roared into college hockey with 16 goals and 16 assists as a first-year forward, said her training at BK Selects helped give her a foundation to contribute greatly to a national championship.
“It keeps you disciplined and consistent,” Simms said. “The work habits of doing extra outside of just practices and lifts, as well as staying focused and driven on always trying to improve my game day to day.”
For Edwards, the MVP for Team USA at the 2022 Women’s Under-18 World Championship, posting 13 goals and 27 total points as a freshman wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it did reinforce the constructive habits she established prior to her arrival in Madison.
“I think any young players could learn to just trust the process,” Edwards said. “It sounds cliche but it’s a great motto that I reminded myself of every day (this season).
“There will be plenty of ups and downs in your careers, but learn from them. I learned from all of mine and have reason to believe it is a big reason for the success I had this year as a freshman.”
Edwards had plenty of Nationals experience at BK, which certainly helped at the next level. Current 19U goalie and Wisconsin commit Ava McNaughton (Wexford, Pa.) has made it to this stage in each of her previous three seasons, so she’s aiming to build on that in her effort to clinch the first girls national crown in program history.
“Knowing what the national tournament entails brings peace of mind to me personally,” said McNaughton, who also suited up for Team USA at last year’s U-18 Worlds. “I know that I am more than capable of playing at this level, so all that I am looking to do is to play my best hockey and give my team the best goaltending I am capable of.”
She’s also not ignorant of the fact that there are ambitious expectations for the 19Us in particular, considering how the program has grown over the past several years.
“One of the hardest components of Nationals is the outside pressure that others have put on us, as people have said our team is going to win from the start,” McNaughton said. “I think that just sticking to our family and our team inside our locker room is key to us making a run at a national championship.”
As for McCarthy, who said she was already proud of the Wisconsin win even before stepping on campus as a student, she asserted that the 19Us are on an “upward trend” lately — and that applies as much away from game action as it does between the whistles.
With a full three weeks separating a dominant run through the New York state tournament from the start of Nationals, the 19Us have no choice but to dig within themselves to keep the winning momentum going.
“Our practices have been upbeat and we have had everyone going,” McCarthy said. “Knowing that three of the NCAA national champion team members where once sitting here in our shoes at BK is reassurance that we have the tools to be the best we can be here.”
To put it another way, the hay is largely in the barn, but there’s still plenty of hard work ahead.
“I’d say that anything can happen at Nationals,” Vasseur said. “But we are definitely a team that other teams are focusing on to beat. Every team we play is going to give us their best.”
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(Top photo: K.K. Harvey, Kirsten Simms and Laila Edwards pose with the NCAA D-I national championship trophy. Credit: Cari Coen/BK Selects)