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The Guilford girls’ ice hockey squad captured its first conference title by notching a 4-2 victory over Amity-North Haven-Cheshire in the final of the SCC Tournament at Bennett Rink on Feb. 29. The Indians have a record of 16-5 as they open play in states this week. (Photo by Dean Bibens/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore goalie Julia McDonald made 39 saves when the Indians defeated the Blades in the SCC championship game. Also pictured for Guilford are junior Christina Garofalo and senior captain Jaime Neleber. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore Maddie Epke scored three goals to lift Guilford to a 4-2 win versus Amity-North Haven-Cheshire in the SCC final. Also in this photo is Indians’ sophomore Daniella Vickerman. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Shots peppered Julia McDonald as she lunged to her left, then quickly dove to her right to make key saves. It was the biggest game of the sophomore goalie’s career, and the moment certainly didn’t appear too big for McDonald and her teammates on the Guilford girls’ ice hockey squad.
McDonald’s effort in net, along with three goals from fellow sophomore Maddie Epke, propelled the Indians to a 4-2 win against Amity-North Haven-Cheshire (A-NH-C) in the championship game of the SCC Tournament at Bennett Rink on Feb. 29. McDonald stopped 39 shots to help Guilford claim its first SCC title in team history. The Indians have won nine of their last 10 games and own an overall record of 16-5 on the campaign.
“I didn’t really have any pressure coming into this game. I look at games like this as more of a challenge, and I wanted to step up and give my team the best shot to win,” said McDonald, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the SCC Tournament. “I’ve been working on going out [of the net] a lot and just cutting off the angles for the shooters, and I think that paid off today.”
Guilford came into the SCC Tournament as the No. 2 seed, while defending champion A-NH-C entered the draw with the top seed after winning the SCC regular-season title. The two clubs were scoreless until Epke netted an unassisted goal with 3:55 remaining in the first period. The sophomore center deked her way past two defenders and ripped a shot into the back of the net to give the Indians a 1-0 advantage over the Blades (13-8-1).
“I thought that first goal was huge,” Guilford Head Coach Rick Binkowski said. “Both teams came out of the gates firing, and it was important that we gained an early lead.”
Guilford increased its lead to 2-0 when Epke scored another unassisted goal with 1:23 to play in the second period. Epke also drew two penalties during the frame, allowing the Indians to possess the puck on the power play for a good portion of the period.
“Maddie is so fast that kids have to try and stop her in whatever capacity they can,” said Binkowski. “Fortunately for us, those were two hooking calls, and that was key in us being able to out-possess them.”
Things got interesting in the third period. Guilford opened the stanza with a quick goal when senior captain Jaime Neleber scored from sophomore wing Daniella Vickerman to make it 3-0.
A-NH-C answered when junior Caroline Cadelina took a cross-ice pass from sophomore Nadia DiNatale and sent it home to cut the deficit to 3-1. Then with 5:02 to play, DiNatale scored a goal to make it a 3-2 game.
“I thought if we could have scored the first goal in the third period, we would have been in great shape,” Blades’ Head Coach John Peschell said. “Once we cut it to 3-2, I thought, ‘Here we go. This is it. This is our turn.’ But then Guilford went and scored another goal, and that pretty much did it for us.”
Epke converted her third unassisted goal of the game to give Guilford a 4-2 lead with 2:18 on the clock. Coach Binkowski then called a timeout to ensure that his club kept its composure.
“That was just a timeout to give our players a little breather, so they could have a good push until the very end,” Binkowski said. “I was expecting the other team to take their timeout first just so they could strategize, but they didn’t, and we finished strong.”
Coach Binkowski lauded the tight-knit Indians for their ability to finish off a close game by staving off the Blades’ late rally.
“That’s been our M.O. all season. We’ve been down a few goals in a lot of games and had to win. That’s something they’re used to and something they’ve worked on, so I think they were able to handle the pressure of [A-NH-C] storming back,” said Binkowski. “But with this team, I think our biggest strength is we’ve become a team. It’s really difficult for a high school team to become a team, because there are changes every single year, but we’ve hit our stride, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.”
Sophomore defender Olivia Gill said it was imperative for Guilford to score first and then maintain its lead throughout the contest.
“I think it was really important just to keep our momentum going and keep our spirits up,” Gill said. “It gave us a lot of confidence and we just built off of that lead as the game progressed. We wanted to keep the game simple and get the puck into their zone.”
Gill also emphasized the importance of Epke’s presence on the ice. Epke earned All-SCC First Team honors for the Indians and was also selected as the SCC Player of the Year.
“Maddie huge asset to our team,” said Gill, who made the All-SCC Second Team. “She either scores or assists on a majority of our goals, and she’s just such a skilled skater. I’m glad she’s on our team.”
Peschell credited Epke for disrupting the Blades’ backline on several occasions during the game.
“Epke is Epke. She always does her thing,” said Peschell, who was named the SCC Coach of the Year. “You try to contain a player like that, but you just can’t stop them. You can’t dictate your gameplay to stopping one player, but we tried to keep an eye on her, and I thought we did a decent job of getting in her way. But she’s just a tremendous player, and it’s tough to stop when she executes as well as she does.”
Guilford had advanced to the SCC final by posting an 8-3 victory against No. 3 seed West Haven-Sacred Heart Academy in a semifinal game at Patsy DiLungo Ice Rink on Feb. 26. Freshman Kimberly Evans scored five goals for the Indians in the win, while Epke had three goals with three assists.
A-NH-C made the SCC final by earning a 4-3 win versus No. 4 seed Hamden-Wilbur Cross-Lyman Hall in the semifinals at Lou Astorino Ice Arena on Feb. 26.
The Blades and Indians will meet again when they face off in the first round of the State Tournament at Lou Astorino Ice Arena on Tuesday, March 3 at 4 p.m.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing and building on what we’ve worked so hard for. Every time we touch the ice, we strive to get better,” Coach Binkowski said. “Our hope is for the same outcome, but we know it won’t be an easy game. They will be looking for revenge, but we just have to come out ready to play.”
Coach Peschell said that he wants the Blades to play with a heightened sense of urgency when they face Guilford in states.
“We obviously want to come back and beat them,” said Peschell. “We can do that by scoring first and grabbing the momentum that we lost in this game. We just have to take it one day at a time.”
The athletes on the Guilford girls’ ice hockey team’s roster are senior captain Jaime Neleber; senior assistant captains Mary Evans and Lily Mackey; seniors Audrey Rowan, Ava Bucci, and Megan Fernandes; juniors Piper Doheny and Christina Garofalo; sophomores Olivia Gill, Haley Kruczek, Caroline Schwartz, Brianna Lent, Daniella Vickerman, Mainey DePetris, Maddie Epke, and Julia McDonald; and freshmen Anastasia Petritz, Kaili Rosa, Alex Glascoff, and Kimberly Evans.
Coach Binkowski’s coaching staff includes Scott Neleber, Tom Epke, and Kitty Palmer.
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