When the Montana Big Sky Wildcats 19-and-Under team returned to Helena after a weekend tournament, one of the team’s two managers asked defenseman Brynn Kontny how it went.
In response, Kontny began telling the manager, Paula Holland, all about a scavenger hunt the players conducted throughout Jackson, Wyo. during their weekend together.
Oh, and by the way, Kontny eventually added, “we won the tournament.”
Coach Steve Tartaglino enjoys sharing that story, but not just as a fun anecdote from the season.
Tartaglino thinks the experience was an important part of the team’s success.
The Wildcats are headed to Toyota-USA Hockey Girls Tier II National Championships March 26-30 in Lansing, Mich., after winning the Northern Plains District title as part of a stretch in which they have won eight of their last 10 games.
The team is made up of girls from the seven 19U teams in the Montana Amateur Hockey Association. The players are selected from a preseason tryout and see each other eight times during the season — for practice weekends in late September and early October, then the six tournaments in which they compete.
Bonding is an important issue for a squad put together from girls who lives hours apart and are used to being opponents throughout the season.
As part of the Wildcats setup, playing for the home team is the priority when there are scheduling conflicts, so there are even times when the entire roster is not together.
“There’s a direct correlation from how the team gets along off the ice to how they play together on the ice,” said Tartaglino, the Wildcats’ coach of nine years, who acknowledged frustration in the early years due to animosities between players from different towns who knew little about each other.
“I did some research wherever I could from some successful college coaches,” Tartaglino said. “There were some common themes there, saying the same thing. So on the weekends we get together, we try to cram all this team building into the weekend besides the tournament play.”
One of those team-building exercises was taking advantage of the Jackson Hole tourist area to send the girls out in three teams to learn about the community. The completion of the scavenger hunt included a community-service component and donation. The girls combined the activities into the weekend when they won the championship.
Tartaglino has tried to make the most of situations like long bus rides together. On one trip, the girls were given five questions about themselves and told to write down their answers to any of the three. The answers were read aloud and players tried to guess which of their teammates was being described. In the process they learned the team has players nicknamed “squirrel” and “chipmunk.”
Tartaglino thinks the Wildcats might have their best team ever, arriving at nationals with a 14-10-2 record.
“What makes us successful is the way the team works together,” he said of a squad that is at its best when it is creating opportunities with an aggressive forecheck.
The Wildcats have an experienced roster, featuring three players from the Wildcats teams that made national tournament appearances in 2011 and 2013.
Stephanie Tartaglino, the coach’s daughter, leads the Wildcats with 19 goals in her ninth season with the team. Tylar Holland, who is second with 12 goals, is in her seventh season. Sawyer Heacock-Chambers is in her fifth season. The team leader in assists (12) and points (23) is Sonja France, now if her fourth season.
“Historically, once they start with the Wildcats, they stay with the Wildcats,” co-team manager Debbie Austin said of Montana’s top girls’ players.
The roster also includes two Idaho residents and one from Washington, who play in Montana throughout the season.
The team consists of three players from the Bozeman team that won its second straight MAHA 19U girls’ title and eight from Missoula, which finished second this season and won MAHA titles in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.
The Wildcats have a spirited and extended rivalry with Team Wyoming, which has a similar make up to its roster. They have alternated the last six Northern Plains District titles, winning three each.
The Montana team won this year’s best-of-three series between the only two teams in the district declared for USA Hockey tournament play.
Stephanie Tartaglino completed her hat trick in overtime for a 4-3 win in the opener. France assisted the game-winner and scored the other goal while Heacock-Chambers had two assists.
After the first four meetings between Team Wyoming and the Wildcats was decided by a single goal (the Wildcats won three), the Wildcats broke open the second game of the title series in Gillette, Wyo. Tartaglino scored two goals and assisting on another while Holland and Chloe Austin each had a goal and an assist in the 8-2 romp in mid-February.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.