The Little Caesars Tier I 14-and-Under girls’ team was blessed with not one but two goaltenders with a state title on their résumés.
Together, Samantha Miller and Kayla Kowalski used that championship experience to lead Little Caesars to the 14U state title, beating Honeybaked 3-1 in the championship game on Sunday. Michigan’s Tier I girls’ championships were held during the final week of February at the Taylor Sportsplex. Little Caesars and the other Tier I champions move on to the Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships March 26-30 in Green Bay, Wis.
“Both of our goaltenders all year have been tremendous,” said a very happy Little Caesars coach Matt Wiljanen following the wild on ice celebration. “They both get along great and push one another. They don’t feel any pressure. They just have fun playing the game.”
Miller, who is the younger of the goalies, backstopped Little Caesars 12U team last year. She played in the first and third games last week, posting back-to-back shutout wins, 5-0 over Compuware and 7-0 over Belle Tire.
Kowalski was in goal in Game 2, against Honeybaked, who handed Little Caesars their only loss during the round robin. The loss also snapped a string of five straight shutout wins for the Rockwood, Mich., native.
Despite the loss, Wiljanen decided to go with Kowalski in the rematch for the championship.
“Kayla has played well down the stretch, and she deserved to start,” Wiljanen said. “She was locked in all week, and today she really helped us because we got off to a slow start.”
Honeybaked outplayed Little Caesars in the first period and did manage to beat Kowalski once, taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by Megan Jacobs. It was during the opening frame when the game turned around, however, as Kowalski made three highlight-reel saves that had the large crowd buzzing.
Kowalski has played goaltender for the past seven years after switching from forward.
“I started playing organized hockey as a forward at an early age,” said Kowalski, who followed her dad into the sport. “I played goalie on and off while as a forward, but I decided to take up the position for good seven years ago. I just enjoyed stopping the puck more as I got older.”
Little Caesars stormed out of the gate in the second period, scoring three unanswered goals to offset the 1-0 first period deficit.
Madison Schroeder picked up a loose puck and beat Honeybaked goaltender Natalie Ferenc 54 seconds into the middle frame on the power play to tie the game. Natalia Asimakis scored what proved to be the winner on a hard wrist shot from the slot at the 9:18 mark. Haley Hodge scored an insurance goal at 11:23, with Little Caesars on the power play, to wrap up the scoring and the win.
“Both teams were really good, and we have been competitors all season long,” Kowalski said. “Wednesday 3-1 loss during the round robin was not our best, but we really came back and played great back-to-back games to win the state title.”
Kayla’s mom, Angela Kowalski, who is also the team’s manager, was proud of her daughter and the rest of the team.
“It’s been an up and down season, but all the girls stuck together and won this as a collective team,” Angela Kowalski said. “I am so proud of all of them.”
The next step for the team is a run at a national title in Green Bay.
“It’s on to the nationals,” said Wiljanen, who will lead a team to the national tournament for the first time, “where hopefully we will make everyone proud of us.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.