Nearly every colorful detail about the St. James team from Springfield, Va., paints the picture of an underdog among the 12 teams in the 16U 1A field at the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Girls Tier II National Championship taking place Thursday through Monday in West Chester and Phoenixville, Pa.
The first-year team in a fourth-year program, made up mostly of people who pictured possibly being somewhere else this season, is trying not to act that way on the ice.
That starts with head coach Matt Billman. The 29-year-old is used to coaching prep school boys teams. He had never coached a girls team when he learned about the new team’s last-minute need for coaching help about two weeks before the season started.
“We didn’t want to be a team that was just kind of happy to be there and just get the patches and just show up,” Billman said. “Our goal was to compete and win hockey games and kind of establish a name for our program.
“Obviously, also have fun and enjoy the experience because of our 16, I think only four have ever been to Nationals before.”
Playing in the first wave of games at nationals Thursday morning at the Ice Line Rink in West Chester, St. James was not able to get that first win, but the team led much of the way against a more-established New Jersey Colonials team before ultimately losing, 3-2, in a shootout.
“The goal was to make some noise and put our name on the map a little bit,” Billman said. “We’ve started that process and we’re prepared for tomorrow’s game.
“We’re approaching each game as if we’re going to go in there and win that game.”
The St. James Hockey Academy began its 16U Tier II team this season, but lost its coach to a job change as the season was getting ready to start.
The pool of 15 players emerged primarily from those cut by other programs around northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area, with only a few having played together. They were eventually joined by one more who made an in-season change.
Billman was approached about the opening and took on the team, without any need to make cuts from the tryouts that had already been held without either of the two current coaches on board. He is assisted by a first-time coach, Elena Boyle, who two years ago was still playing at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Warned that the way the team came together could make for a difficult group, Boyle said she found something completely different in her first coaching assignment.
“They were really dedicated and goofy from the start,” said Boyle, who celebrated her 23rd birthday on the first day of Nationals. “They’re very resilient and really adaptable. Whatever the challenge is, they want to rise to the occasion.”
Billman and Boyle work together on everything from practice plans to breaking down film, but Billman said the first-year coach is particularly good in helping players deal with off-ice issues. Boyle works as a program manager for a suicide prevention nonprofit and as a probation counselor at a juvenile detention center.
“She’s a really good person to talk to the girls on the mental health type of thing,” Billman said. “Talking with them, making sure they always know there’s an open line of communication with us and there’s always stuff we can talk through and work out.”
Billman proudly describes a gritty St. James team that has become difficult to play against.
“We’re going to make it as tough as possible,” he said. “We’re getting the puck in deep and we’re just attacking you. We’re getting in front of your goal, making things messy and trying to create chaos.”
The team’s player of the game gets a chicken hat to symbolize a description Billman likes to use for the net-front play.
“When you have that guy walking around with chicken feed and he throws it and they all kind of attack it, we want to treat the puck that way,” Billman said. “Throw it to the net and everybody just attack it.
“It’s a motto we’ve lived by all year, ‘feeding the chickens’. That’s how we describe our offense.”
The approach produced a team that managed to finish sixth out of 15 in the 16U-AA Division of the Middle Atlantic Women’s Hockey Association with a 15-12-1-1 record.
Before attempting to exceed expectations at Nationals, St. James did just that within both league and district play.
In the Southeastern District Tournament, St. James earned its Nationals trip by twice beating the Florida Alliance in overtime — to begin and end the event — after giving up a one-goal lead with the Florida goalie pulled in the final minute of regulation in each game.
“It was a very stressful weekend on my end, but it was incredible,” Billman said.
To get to the final, St. James won a shootout over the Tri-City Eagles, a Maryland rival they finished right behind in the MAWHA standings.
“It was nerve-wracking and stressful, but really, really satisfying,” Boyle said.
Thursday brought more stress — and more satisfaction.
The New Jersey Colonials had won the two regular-season MAWHA meetings, 9-2 and 3-1, piling up 54 shots in the first game, then holding St. James to 12 in the second.
New Jersey scored early in a first period St. James’ power play, but the Virginia team answered before the advantage was over and moved ahead later in the first period. Angela Barrass scored the power-play goal, and Astrid Wilbur put the team in front.
The Colonials kept the pressure on with shot advantages of 15-7 in the second period, 14-4 in the third and 2-0 in the five-minute overtime. Despite an outstanding 43-save performance by Laura South, New Jersey forced the shootout on a goal with 3:36 left in the third.
“She is one of the best goalies I’ve ever seen,” Billman said of South.
South went 3-0 in the district tournament the same weekend she was the winning goalie for the Washington Liberty Youth team from Arlington, Virginia, in its varsity league championship game.
New Jersey outscored St. James, 2-1, in the five-round shootout. The St. James’ player taking the last attempt slipped a shot through the five hole only to have it hit the post and stay out of the net, ending a heartbreaker for St. James.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.