Once a team wins back-to-back titles, the biggest concern in a head coach’s mind as they enter the next season is whether the players will retain the same intensity it takes to win another.
This was the case for Aberdeen (South Dakota) Cougars 19U coach Shelby Edwards. Coming into the 2017-18 season, the team had won three consecutive SDAHA girls state championships. Edwards was starting her first season as head coach, after having been an assistant for last season’s championship team. So she was well aware of the expectations that come with continuing a winning tradition.
As it turned out, Edwards needn’t have worried. The Cougars finished the regular season 19-1-1, and swept all three games in the state tournament to earn a fourth straight title. It also qualified them for the Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Nationals which, this year, includes a girls division for the first time.
“We talked a lot this year about not being complacent,” explained Edwards, a native of Rapid City, South Dakota. “Going into a season [after] you’ve won the state tournament three times, there’s a little pressure there that everybody expects you to win another one. It’s easy sometimes for teams to get in that mindset of, ‘Well, we’ve won it three times, so maybe we don’t need to work as hard.’ I think, going back to the team aspect, they all show up to be with their friends and work hard for each other. I think that’s the biggest motivation for them.”
That team unity has certainly made Edwards’ job of coaching easier. It also helps when every player has a passion for the game and a desire to learn, characteristics that USA Hockey teaches in all its youth programs.
“They show up to practice wanting to get better, wanting to learn,” Edwards said. “They ask questions. They don’t just show up and go through the motions.”
As the No. 1 seed heading into the SDAHA tournament, the Cougars shut out their first two opponents. They cruised to an 8-0 victory over eighth-seeded Omaha, Nebraska, a newcomer to the league. Their second win was a 6-0 triumph over Mitchell, avenging their only loss during the regular season.
The championship game against Brookings was much closer until midway through the third period. The Cougars took a 3-1 lead into the first intermission. The second period was a seesaw battle, with Aberdeen clinging to a 7-6 lead going into the third. Both teams dug in defensively for the first half of the final period, until the Cougars scored four unanswered goals to put the game on ice 11-6, giving them their fourth straight championship.
This year’s squad is a relatively young one with four seniors, three of whom played for last season’s championship team (the fourth joined after moving from Omaha). Sophomore Kensington Eckhoff scored 7 of the Cougars’ 11 goals in the championship win over Brookings. Edwards describes her linemate, freshman Kaitlyn Holland, as aggressive, speedy, and a good puck handler. Seniors Mady Oghdahl and Kamryn Hayhurst are co-captains. Junior Emma Ahlberg is also a team captain. She, along with sophomore Haiden Stoltenberg, anchor the Cougar defense.
Edwards has two solid goaltenders in senior Hailey Huff and sophomore Shelby Snow. Huff has seen much of the varsity action during her four seasons, but Edwards has complete confidence in both goalies heading into Nationals.
“Either one of those two that we put in net can get it done for us,” she said.
A clear sign of growth in girls hockey is the introduction of a girls division at the high school national tournament. Edwards, who played at Aberdeen Central High and two-and-a-half seasons at South Dakota State University before getting into coaching, has high praise for USA Hockey’s commitment to providing girls an equal opportunity to play.
“They try to do a lot to advance the girls’ game, and they have a lot of different events, making sure that things like this tournament are possible,” she said. “With the women’s national team having so much success, it kind of helps push it along. There are more and more programs offering the sport to females. When I played in high school, it still wasn’t very popular. I started coaching when I was a freshman in college about seven years ago, and even since then, it’s really taken off.”
The Cougars will be in Plymouth, Minnesota, for USA Hockey High School Nationals, March 22-25, competing against three other girls teams. Each team will play a minimum of four games, the final one being either the consolation or championship game. Win or lose, Edwards believes the experience will offer more than competition on the ice.
“Yes, we get to go for hockey, but there’s also a lot of other experiences they get, hanging out with teammates and having fun in a different place,” Edwards explained. “For [the seniors], this is going to be their last time putting on a Cougars jersey, so they need to make the most of it. For the rest of the girls, take it in, make the most of it, and know if you continue to have success, you’ll be invited here again.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc