Eyes glinting, voice low, Taylor Shelden, 15, glances around a small sitting room tucked into a back hallway Friday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
“16 more days,” Shelden said, instantly capturing her teammate’s attention. “16 more days,” they repeat in turns, emphasizing the weight of her words.
The Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association’s Girls Tier II Ice Hawks are counting down to the TII U16 Girls National Championships held in Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. It will be a decisive tournament for their team, and a culmination of the season’s training.
“At the Pacific District Tournament last year we lost in double over time, and that kind of crushed us,” Shelden said, “but it also made us more determined.”
Defensive player Anna Wrobel, 16, said making it to Nationals is momentous for the team. It is their first time at the prestigious competition and the first time to send a girl’s team in KPHA history, she said.
“The road to Nationals started three years ago,” said head coach Ted Barton. Their skill level and game sense is just night and day from where they started, he said.
Because of their remote location and deficit of girls U16 teams in the region, the Ice Hawks often play against boy’s teams or spar with higher-level girls teams, Barton said. The Ice Hawks have already made a name for themselves in the hockey community as a team that plays hard, he said.
The team that was supposed to meet the Ice Hawks in Anaheim this year for the pivotal Pacific District Tournament, previewed how the girls at KPHA performed and decided not to attend a game they wouldn’t win, he said.
“Our girls are just right there,” Barton said. This year the team has made many technical improvements, he said. The Ice Hawks possess a unique strength in their defense, which is how they’ve stayed on level with higher-ranking teams, he said. He calculated the Ice Hawks take about half the amount of shots as their competition per game.
“We are good at keeping the other team to the side,” Barton said. And it’s not just the position of the defenders to play defensively; it is also the forwards and the goalie he added.
Where the girls commute from is an indicator of the team’s growing success, Barton said. Previously, girls in Kenai who wanted to play serious hockey looked to Anchorage for spots on competitive teams, now members fly to the peninsula from Anchorage or drive up from Homer for practice.
Sophie Bethke, 15, makes the trip from Anchorage as often as she can. Occasionally it can be a challenge but spending time with her teammates who, have a developed a sisterly relationship, has made it completely worthwhile, she said.
“There’s nothing like our bond,” Megan Silta, 16, said evoking nods from her teammates. “We spend so much time together.”
Next to the team’s cohesion and enthusiasm for the game the girls agree the focus of their coaches is a huge part of their achievement.
The coaches have contacted scouts to attend games for girls looking to continue playing in college or at a prep school, Wrobel said. They’ve also secured spots in east coast competitions, which is a time consuming expensive process she said.
“They all have their own job and styles but it balances everything out,” Wrobel said.
The girls exude confidence for nationals. After taking turns stating their own sentiments of certainty they collectively rise and head out onto the ice for one of the few practices remaining before the much-anticipated trip to Amherst.
The team will be having a steak feed on March 22 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to raise money for the trip
Kelly Sullivan can be reached at Kelly.Sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com