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Sophomore Maddie Epke once again proved scoring force for the Guilford girls’ ice hockey team this winter. Epke posted 59 goals and 30 assists on the year, while helping the Indians capture their first conference crown in the history of the program. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore goalie Julia McDonald had a great season in net for the Indians, including a 39-save performance when they earned a 4-2 win versus Amity-North Haven-Cheshire in the SCC Tournament final. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Jaime Neleber was one of the leaders for the ice for the Guilford girls’ hockey squad during the recent campaign. Neleber and her five fellow seniors guided the Indians to a historic season that saw the team finish with a record of 17-6. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore Daniella Vickerman contributed to the Indians’ prolific offense by scoring 18 goals and dishing out 31 assists this year. (File photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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The Guilford girls’ ice hockey squad put together a historic season during the 2019-’20 winter campaign. The Indians claimed their first Southern Connecticut Conference title in team history and also won a game in the State Tournament on their way to finishing with an overall record of 17-6 on the year.
Head Coach Rich Binkowski felt that his team’s success could be attributed to a focus on the fundamentals, along with how hard his athletes worked in practice throughout the course of the season.
“I enjoyed our success for a lot of reasons,” said Binkowski. “We enjoyed a high frequency of experienced hockey players on the team, which is something we haven’t had in a little while. It made it easier for us to coach and put together more practices rooted in fundamentals and executing on offense and defense.”
Binkowski said that all the players and coaches in his program have a similar mindset when it comes to a recipe for success. As result, everyone knew what to expect from each other at both practices and games.
“About 10 years ago, Team USA really revamped its hockey program by changing the way the youth were taught. Practices were redesigned so that kids were skating board to board, rather than line to line,” Coach Binkowski said. “We’ve taken a little bit of that method and have really focused increasing touches on the puck and executing with our passes in small spaces.”
Guilford recorded plenty of thrilling victories during its 17-win season, including a pair of 7-6 overtime wins against West Haven-Sacred Heart Academy (WH-SHA). The first overtime victory came at Webster Bank Arena in the Connecticut Ice Girls High School Hockey Showcase game on Jan. 24. Then on Feb. 21, the Indians notched another 7-6 win in OT in the rematch at Bennett Rink.
“Those were definitely two of our most exciting games this season. Those two games really were the essence of our team,” said Binkowski. “Whenever we were down this season, we always found a way to battle back, no matter the margin.”
Binkowski added that a turning point in Guilford’s season came when the team competed at a tournament in Massachusetts in mid-January. Guilford played six games in a three-day span on its way to making the championship game of the tournament. While those games didn’t count toward the Indians’ final record, Coach Binkowski was impressed with how his club performed throughout a grueling weekend.
“That tournament consisted of all really strong programs. For us to play that many games in a short amount of time showed to me what we were capable of,” he said. “We rose to the challenge and performed wonderfully.”
A big reason the Indians were so cohesive as an offensive unit was because of sophomore star Maddie Epke, who started all 23 games for Guilford. Epke scored 59 goals to go with 30 assists for a total of 89 points, which was the most on the squad. Fellow sophomore forward Daniella Vickerman had 18 goals with 31 assists, and freshman Kim Evans tallied the second-most goals scored with 25 on the year.
“Offensively, we had so many different weapons,” Binkowski said. “I know Maddie is going to get a lot of the credit and she deserves it, but all of these other girls surrounding her bettered her game and made us stronger overall.”
While the Indians lit the lamp with regularity, they also featured a staunch defense that helped propel them to their historic campaign. Guilford’s defense was anchored by sophomore Christina Garofalo and sophomore Olivia Gill.
“The thing that gets left out often is our defense,” said Binkowski. “Girls like Olivia Gill and Christina Garofalo really carried us on that backline, and they were just as much of a reason for our success as the offense.”
The last line of Guilford’s defense was sophomore goalie Julia McDonald, who had a solid season between the pipes. McDonald’s best performance of the year came in the Indians’ biggest came of the year when they faced the Amity-North Haven-Cheshire Blades in the SCC Tournament final. McDonald stopped 39 shots to help Guilford get a 4-2 victory and win the conference crown. Guilford went on to defeat those same Blades by a 5-3 score in the first round of the State Tournament.
“Julia got better and better as the year progressed,” Coach Binkowski said. “That game against [Amity-North Haven-Cheshire], she stood on her head. She didn’t allow a goal until the third period and made some incredible diving stops. I think that game will give her a lot of confidence going into next season, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we accomplish.”
The Indians are graduating six seniors from this year’s team: Ava Bucci, Megan Fernandes, Mary Evans, Lily Mackey, Jaime Neleber, and Audrey Rowen. Neleber led Guilford as a senior captain, while Evans and Mackey served as assistant captains for the Indians.
“All of those girls were great to have in our program, and we will definitely miss them next year,” said Binkowski. “Thankfully, we have a great feeder program in the Shoreline Sharks, and I’m hoping that we get some of the depth back that we are going to lose with these girls graduating.”
On the heels of such a memorable campaign, Coach Binkowski is setting the bar high for the 2020-’21 season.
“We have a great group of core players returning, along with some incoming freshman that should make us a really scary team next year,” Binkowski said. “I expect us to win the SCC Tournament again, and I want to see us get to the third round in states. We were knocked out in the second round this year by a strong Simsbury team, but I know we learned from that, and I have faith we can put together a great run next year.”
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