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01/12/2023 08:44 AM

Grizzlies Girls’ Hockey Learning How To Win in First Co-op Season

Senior captain Kimberly Evans of Guilford has been a crucial leader on and off the ice for the Grizzlies girls’ ice hockey co-op team this season. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier
Aislinn Aiken of North Branford has been a key contributer for the Guilford Co-op girls’ ice hockey team so far. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Courier

This season for Guilford girls’ ice hockey has been far from business as usual. Coming off a 2022 Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) crown and state tournament run that ended with a loss to eventual state champion New Canaan, the Grizzlies struggled to field a team this year due to graduations and some players departing to attend prep schools, according to Head Coach Rich Binkowski.

“Our athletic director had to go to the Southern Connecticut Conference and let them know we were short players and we needed to start a co-op, and we were willing to host a co-op,” the coach said.

The Grizzlies’ co-op was approved prior to the beginning of the school year, according to Binkowski, and this season the team has 11 players from Guilford, six from East Haven, and a player each from North Branford and Coginchaug Regional High School, which includes students from Durham and Middlefield, respectively.

“We’re very much a new team,” Binkowski said.

The Guilford/East Haven/North Branford/Coginchaug Co-op opened the season with back-to-back triumphs over Greenwich and the Masuk Co-op, but prior to a Jan. 10 tilt against the West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy (Hamden) Co-op, have dropped four straight. Despite the losses, Binkowski said his young, new group is figuring out how to close out contests and pick up victories.

“We’re right on the doorstep,” the coach said. “We just need to come together as a team to get past those little hurdles.”

As of Jan. 10, three of the Grizzlies’ four losses have been by one goal, with the first loss of the season coming in overtime to West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy on Dec. 15. Binkowski said suffering close, late defeats can be tough on any group, but he sees potential in this Guilford squad.

“Even though we have the skill level, the experience, we’ve been trying to come together as a team and find our identity in this early part of the season,” Binkowski said. “We have some good pieces to work with, but we’re leaning a lot on some of the younger players, we’re asking them to play positions they’ve never played before and they’re doing an excellent job. It takes time to put all this together.”

Binkowski said the team has taken an all-hands-on-deck approach, with players willing to play different positions to help the team. He said senior captain and Guilford native Kimberly Evans has been crucial for the group, providing leadership and consistency in both the offensive and defensive zone.

“She’s been on the team all four years, is an incredibly strong player, played a high level of hockey for a number of years, and continues to play with her youth team,” Binkowski said. “She plays defense, she plays forward, she’s been instrumental in a lot of our success. She’s been fantastic, a true two-way player.”

The coach added Isabella Jackowicz and captain Jordan King from East Haven, senior Julia Crisci and Aislinn Aiken, the lone player from North Branford, have been key contributors for the newly formed Guilford Co-op. Binkowski, who is also a youth hockey coach, said he has a brief history with Aiken.

“I actually coached her briefly at the beginning of her hockey career,” Binkowski said. “She was in a mite development program that my son was in. At the time there were few girls playing, there were probably 50 boys and three girls.”

And the coach said Aiken possesses talents off the ice that kept her from the Grizzlies during the month of December.

“She was the lead role in a musical at North Branford High School,” Binkowski said. “We were without her for the entire month of December, she had rehearsals every day after school until about nine o’clock for a wonderful production of The Sound of Music, but we’re singing now that she’s here with us because she’s a very strong player.”

The Grizzlies have strong, promising young talent in their freshman class, too, according to Binkowski. He said he’s been impressed by Tayte DePetris, Hailey Farace, and Emma Clifford. He added the team’s goalie play has been solid as well, thanks to freshman Kadence Epke and sophomore Olivia Hwang, who he said received valuable ice time in her freshman season due to an injury to the Grizzlies’ starter in goal.

Binkowski said he wants this Grizzlies group to be a defense-first hockey team. He said although he is strict about the team playing organized, smart defense his way, once Guilford possesses the puck and attacks, he wants his players to take over and create.

“[My philosophy on offense] is: go have fun,” Binkowski said. “Go be creative, go do what you think is cool. You saw something in an NHL game last night? Go try it down there around the goal. We give them a loose framework to work with, but I’m never going to get on a kid about trying something new or doing something different because that’s the beauty of the game. That kind of creativity, you never know what these kids are capable of.”

And as the Grizzlies learn how to win together on the ice, they’ve strengthened their relationships with one another off of it. Binkowski said even though he has players that may not share the same high school hallways, many of them played, or still play, youth hockey together. He also said his group bonds over team meals the day before games, thanks to the help of team parents and the team booster Andrea Evans. Although this season has been different from the 2022 run to an SCC crown, Binkowski said his group is working hard, clicking off the ice, and making him proud.

“They have a Secret Santa, and a program they called ‘guardian angel,’ where every kid is assigned another player who is their guardian angel and they do little things for each other throughout the season and get little gifts here and there (for each other),” the coach said. “So that certainly helps.”

The Grizzlies’ roster consists of seniors Aislinn Aiken (North Branford HS), Julia Crisci (East Haven HS), Kimberly Evans (Guilford HS), Jaime Forrest (East Haven HS), Alexandra Glascoff (Guilford HS), Jordan King (East Haven HS), and Kaili Rosa (Guilford HS), junior Lillian Schroeder (Guilford HS), sophomores Olivia Hwang (Guilford HS), Cambelle Jacobson (Guilford HS), Isabella Jackowicz (East Haven HS), and freshmen Emma Clifford (Guilford HS), Tayte DePetris (Guilford HS), Regan Dills (Coginchaug Regional HS), Kadence Epke (Guilford HS), Hailey Farace (Guilford HS), Emily Forrest (East Haven HS), Madison Paolella (East Haven HS), and Emma Vittorio (Guilford HS).