IRVINE, Calif. — As Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blared from the winning locker room of the Nashville Jr. Predators (TN), one line in the iconic anthem stood out from all the others.
“And we'll keep on fighting till the end.”
That was exactly what the Jr. Predators did at the 2023 Chipotle-USA Hockey Girls Tier II 19U National Championships at the Great Park Ice Arena on Monday.
Trailing 2-0 entering the third period, Heather Ajakie continued her stellar tournament play with a hat trick, while Devon Cavaliere scored the decisive goal as the Predators rallied to beat the Arizona Kachinas (AZ) 4-3 in a thrilling 1A title game.
“It means everything,” Ajakie said. “We've been so close for the past two years making it to the championship and we got second two or three years ago. So this means everything getting it my senior year, too.”
Wearing the captain’s C, Ajakie was determined to lift her team to victory.
“I didn’t want to lose again,” Ajakie said.
It was that type of performance and attitude that figures to bode well for the Nashville program. Predators coach Kahlie Singletary didn’t need to give a fiery speech during the second intermission.
“Culture supersedes strategy and our culture is grit and grind and hard work and you never give up,” Singletary said. “I think that's exactly what we did.”
While teams never want to go behind, especially in national tournaments — Nashville was down 1-0 in the semifinals and 2-1 in the quarterfinals — having a star player like Ajakie on the ice helps overcome those hurdles.
“We haven't seen that Heather for a lot of the season,” Singletary said. “We know that she has the ability to do it and I think that this tournament and getting to where we've gotten, she was always a huge contributor and everything that she did for our program.
“We just had to earn it and had to fight. She stepped up to be the leader that she is and wasn't taking no for an answer.”
Still, it seemed like through two periods that Arizona might walk away with the title. After a scoreless first period, the Kachinas’ Jenna Majewski scored twice in the second.
Ajakie let it be known early in the third period that the game was far from over.
She scored her first goal of the game just 38 seconds into the third. But Majewski countered 1:19 later to put the Kachinas up 3-1. The individual battle between the two continued to escalate when Ajakie made it 3-2 just 47 seconds later and then tied it up 4:33 into the third period.
Cavaliere converted the decisive goal with 7:36 left in regulation.
“We had them on their heels the first [period], we just couldn't put the puck in the net, couldn't get rebounds,” Ajakie said. “We weren't in front of the net for the dirty goals. So we changed that around in the third period.”
After the tight contest, Singletary had high praise for her opponents. The Nashville coach wasn’t surprised to be facing Arizona in the championship game.
“We actually wanted to play them all season,” Singletary said. “When I was doing all of our scouting, leading up to this tournament, that was one of the teams that I envisioned.
“They're a great hockey team. They play really similar to us, I think match wise, it was probably the closest match in terms of lines and talent and how they operate, and they played a fantastic game.”
The 1A title capped off an impressive year for the program, as Nashville had a team in all three divisions in Irvine this weekend.
What does that say about the program?
“That we are a hockey city and that we really focus on development of players on and off the ice and young women as well,” Singletary said. “I think that plays a lot into it.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.