Four years ago, a group of girl hockey players from across Idaho decided to form an all-star team. That was easier said than done.
“We’re geographically challenged,” coach Jason Haugen said. “So our girls are somewhere between three and nine hours apart, and we’re divided by mountains and rivers.”
Despite those challenges, the Idaho Jr. Steelheads have improved every year, and this weekend they made the quarterfinals at the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Girls National Championships in Plymouth, Minnesota. Facing some of the country’s strongest programs, the tight-knit Idaho girls more than held their own.
“We showed that we belong here with some of the best high school players in the nation,” Haugen said.
The Steelheads’ run came to a finish Sunday against Anchorage. After the Alaska team built an early 3-0 lead, Idaho’s Suzan Vidmar scored an unassisted goal late in the second period to get one back, but Anchorage added one more in the third period to secure the 4-1 win.
It was an emotional locker room after the game, Haugen said. About a dozen of the girls have been together from the start of the Steelheads, but now seven players are graduating. So although a strong group is expected to return next year, this marked the last season with the original core.
“Today was a lot of big tears,” Haugen said. “Not because we lost. Because it’s the end of a journey for half of them.”
Haugen has been coaching some of the girls on the team for almost a decade, including his daughter Bryn Haugen. Four years ago, when girls from local teams in different parts of the state decided to create an all-Idaho team that could compete at higher levels, Haugen took on that coaching role, too.
Most of the girls still play on other teams in addition to the Steelheads — including their high school girls and boys teams. With their busy schedules and long commutes, the Steelheads could only practice once a month. Nonetheless, when they came together, they really came together, developing a bond that helped the Steelheads overcome their unique obstacles.
What began four years ago as a newly-formed group who proudly embraced their Idaho roots became a showing of strength, with three graduating seniors from this year’s team now heading to play at Division III college hockey at schools in the Midwest.
Coming into nationals, the Steelheads knew the competition would be tough. Then they saw the schedule. Opening on Thursday against Team Texas, the defending national champs in the division, Idaho fell 5-1, with Lillian Warner scoring the lone goal, assisted by Olivia Cooper.
Next on the schedule was Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the powerhouse prep school from Faribault, Minnesota. Though the Sabres beat Idaho 5-0, it was actually one of the the closest scores through Shattuck’s first four tournament games.
The Steelheads closed out preliminary-round play on Saturday against the Omaha (Neb.) Lady Lancers. Amanda Pouchnik scored a power-play goal in the first period, then completed her hat trick in the third. Addison Harris added an insurance goal in a 4-1 win to send the team on to the quarterfinals.
“We came here to play better teams,” Haugen said. “Sure, we would have loved a different draw; I think we could have gotten to the semifinals, but at the same time we came to play the best high school teams in the nation, and I think we got that. We got exactly what we wanted.”
Pouchnik led the team in scoring, with all three of her points coming on the hat trick. Eight other players recorded a single point. In net, Grendel Sprong started all four games and stopped 96 of the 100 shots she faced for a 3.50 goals-against average and an .860 save percentage.
Sprong is the “glue” of the team, Haugen said, and though she wears an “A” instead of the “C” owing to the rule that doesn’t allow goalies to be captains, she’s a clear leader on the team.
“She has the ability to bring people together, be that motherly figure,” Haugen said. “She’s obviously a fantastic goalie, but what I think she brings to the team even more than that is her leadership.”
Pouchnik, meanwhile, is the official captain and also a standout defender.
“She’s a fantastic player,” Haugen said. “Not just the leading scorer (of this tournament), but a super strong defender.”
In addition, Pouchnik holds symbolic importance to the team. While several players hail from the more populous Boise and Sun Valley metros in southern Idaho, and two players come from McCall, a resort town in the middle of the state, Pouchnik lives farther north in Moscow, Idaho.
“So she’s the sole girl from the northern part of the state,” Haugen said. “Her commute to see any of us is about nine hours. It brings a diversity across the state so we’re truly an Idaho team.”
Coming together to play and represent Idaho, the Steelheads ended up becoming more than a team.
“They’re just an incredible group of young women with tons of heart and talent, and they have a unique bond that you don’t see very often in anything, in work, in sports, in friendship,” Haugen said. “They are going to go on to do extraordinary things in their lives because of what they created here.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.