GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s now or never.
With a senior-laden roster, the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 19U team is ready to win a national title.
The team, which has just one junior, returned to the Toyota-USA Hockey Tier I Girls National Championships for the first time since 2011 after winning the Mid-Am District title.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Penguins Elite coach John Mooney said. “This is what you play for all year, to go to districts and to make it [to nationals]. You want to come up here and you want to compete. It’s great for the whole program and the girls, the parents. This is what you work for, the final result, and everybody’s real happy.”
The girls on this year’s Penguins Elite team have plenty of experience at nationals, but at different age levels. For the seniors, it’s their final shot to take home the ultimate prize.
“I think we all know what to expect by now and what the teams are going to be like,” Penguins Elite captain Rachel Khalouf said. “We just have to go out there and work hard and play with our hearts and everything else will come.”
All the hard work the girls put in during the season paid off.
“It’s an older group, and they’re committed this year,” said Mooney, whose daughter, Ireland, is one of the team’s stars and won a national title at the 14U level. “At districts, we had two solid games, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Penguins Elite is a talented group, with 15 of the 17 girls committed to play hockey at the next level — four at Division I colleges — noted Mooney. With so many good players on the ice, it’s important the girls mesh well. And they do.
“That’s the best thing about it,” Mooney said. “Everybody gets along. It’s a long season, you’re with each other. The parents are fantastic and we all go out as a team for pizzas and whatever. Everyone gets along and that’s what makes it so much fun.”
Penguins Elite entered nationals with a record of 24-21-5. It’s not a flashy mark, but that doesn’t concern Mooney.
“We go to the top tournaments around the country,” Mooney said. “To be above .500 for this team is a great accomplishment.”
Khalouf, who will play next season at the University of Vermont, has witnessed first-hand the steady improvement from the Penguins Elite team since Day 1.
“We definitely progressed through the year and the little things we’ve gotten better at, and that’s helped us win games,” Khalouf said.
The Pittsburgh players pride themselves on playing strong defense. Since the team isn’t known for gaudy offensive numbers, it has ridden its defense all the way to Green Bay for nationals.
“Defensively, I think our whole team is great,” Khalouf said. “We’ve had some great shutdown D this year, along with offense. In our district games, we had some really good offense, which helped us a lot. Hopefully we can rack up the points here.”
Pittsburgh didn’t have an ideal first-round game at nationals on Thursday. Penguins Elite fell to the Southern Connecticut Stars 5-2, surrendering three third-period goals. It will have to rebound in the preliminary rounds to keep its season alive.
“My last year here at nationals, I really want to just enjoy the ride and I hopefully want to go really far, as far as we can,” Khalouf said. “Let’s win some games.”
Mooney is hoping his players can have a good tournament, but most importantly just have fun.
“You come up here, and that’s what it’s all about is having fun and being together as a team,” Mooney said. “The team that jells the best and plays as a team is the one that’s going to go. We hope to get out of our division, top two teams, and then it’s one game at a time. Get out of our division and anything can happen.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.