IRVINE, Calif. — Playing for a national championship can be a bit nerve-wracking, no matter what age level.
But if you had any question about the mindset of the Sno-King Jr. Thunderbirds (WA), all you had to do was watch the team go through its pregame warmups for the Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier II 16U National Championships.
Players were on the second level of the Great Park Ice Arena doing their exercises in unison, then pulled out a football to toss around. All of that good chemistry helped the Thunderbirds to a 2-1 victory over the Webster Cyclones (NY) for the 1A national title. It is the first championship for the Thunderbirds girls 16U program, in just its third year of existence.
“I think everyone's just gotten really close throughout this year,” Sno-King forward Lola Macuiba said. “I didn't know many of the players at the beginning, but we've just had so many road games and road tournaments that we've just all gotten really close to each other. It's been amazing.”
Macuiba had a goal and an assist in the title game, both coming in the first period. She opened the scoring just 4:21 into the game on an assist from Esme Lichong.
However, Webster countered 1:24 later as Ava Farrell scored her only goal of the tournament.
Then, Sno-King got its second goal not even two minutes after the Webster equalizer. This time, it was Lichong who scored with Macuiba assisting. Lichong finished as the team’s leading scorer at nationals, finishing with five assists and nine points.
“It means way more to the girls than to me, but I'm just proud of them for everything they've accomplished so far in this season,” Thunderbirds coach Carlee Toews said. “To see them really pull through at the end of the year, I couldn't think of a more special group to share these moments with.
“This is what we trained for, what we practiced for all year and it's really cool to see it pay off.”
It was a balanced effort throughout the tournament for the Thunderbirds. Macuiba finished second on the team with six points, and 11 players had at least one point.
“Lola is the all-around, dedicated, special athlete that every coach dreams of having on their team,” Toews said. “All year long, she's been a huge, powerful force for us upfront and the D end as well. Her work ethic is like nothing else. She is one special player.”
While the opening scoring blitz seemed to set the stage for an offensive show in the championship game, defense ruled the final two periods.
“When we have all the energy in the start, that's when it's key,” Macuiba said. “I feel like as long as we got those two goals — I mean, it would have been great to get more — but I'm glad we got those two and we were able to pull through.”
Webster held a slight advantage in shots for the game at 31-26. The two goaltenders, Sno-King’s Lucy Holliday and Webster’s Lola Betancourt, rose to the challenge and kept the puck out of the net the rest of the way.
“Our [defensive] corps and our goalie, special shoutout to them,” Toews said. “They've been strong from the beginning. The fact that they shut down the other team's offense was huge for us and it paid off at the end.”
The Thunderbirds program coincided with the birth of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken. Toews said the Kraken showed a little bit of love for the Thunderbirds and is excited to see how much more hockey can grow in the Pacific Northwest.
“Before we headed to nationals, we got up on their big screen [at a Kraken game],” Toews said. “The whole community of Seattle has been really rallying around Sno-King and this support from the community has been great.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Here are few notes and numbers for the Sno-King girls program: