ESG -- Women's Ice Hockey
When it comes to the scholastic division of the Empire State Games, coaches know they will be constantly reloading their rosters from summer to summer. Sometimes, though, when the stars align just right, a championship team can remain mostly intact because it was young and its players were performing beyond their years.
Welcome, fans, to the 2006 Western women's ice hockey team.
Eleven players from last year's team that won its first gold medal since 2001 are back and ready to defend their title, and with nine talented newcomers eager to fill in the departed players' shoes, coach Kristin Steele is fully anticipating Western maintaining its streak of medaling every year since the sport began being offered in 1999.
"We did lose some girls from last year, including a goalie who played a lot, but we have a lot of girls returning who played big parts in last year's success," Steele said. "We go to the tournament every year with the goal to win, and these girls are working hard every year and giving up a lot of their time during the summer so that we can do this right."
Western defeated Long Island in its final game of last year's tournament, 4-0, and received some help from another region to secure the gold medal. Cheektowaga resident Pamela Zgoda, a defenseman, scored one of the team's goals in that game and is ready to get to Rochester to start the team's defense of the gold medal.
"I think it's really important for us to have the same core group of girls back this year," said Zgoda, who will be a junior at Nichols in the fall. "We just have to work hard no matter what and go get it."
Zgoda, like many of her Buffalo area teammates, is a product of both Nichols and the Buffalo Bisons travel programs. Having a team comprised of players who already know the ins and outs of each other only helps make Steele's job easier, since Western wasn't even able to have its first team practices until this past Monday and Tuesday.
"In a short-term competition like this, it's all about getting the team to gel quickly, and I don't see any reason why we can't do that," Steele said. "Our pools to draw from, from the Buffalo and Rochester areas, at times it can lead to some competition trying to get everyone to gel, but the last couple of years have been great. Everyone's been happy to be on the team and really accepting of anything."
Joining Zgoda as returning defensemen this summer are West Seneca resident Erica Owczarczak, Tonawanda resident Cassandra Koehne, and Eden resident Brigid Ogorman. The blue liners' play could be even more important at this year's games as returning goalie Kim Sass of East Amherst and newcomer Anna Whistler of Holland compete for playing time.
"Me and Brigid know each other pretty well from other teams," said Koehne, a senior-to-be at Kenmore East. "We know where we're going to make plays and we work well together. I think we have a lot of offensive-generating power from the defense up, so I think we should be able to defend our gold. I think we can be an even better team this year."
"I just feel like I can make a lot of plays and support my teammates on and off the ice," said Owczarczak, who will be a junior at Nichols this fall. "A lot of us know how it feels to win the gold medal, so we all want to do it again. We just have to do exactly what we did last year, and we have to get the new kids to feel at home."
Sass will most likely get the nod to at least start the tournament between the pipes, since she did win the one game that she did play in last year's Games. Last year's boys junior varsity goalie at Williamsville North, Sass is hoping the faster pace of playing against boys teams will help her at the Games.
"Playing against the faster pace of boys should definitely help me," Sass said. "I've been playing goalie for seven years now, so I think that experience should help. I just want to go out there, play my best and have fun."
Of course, pitching shutouts or, at the very least, keeping the opposition's scoring to a minimum is only half the equation. If Western wants to defend its gold, it will need to have the offensive firepower to keep pace with the other regions. Fortunately, that shouldn't be a problem.
Returning forwards include West Seneca resident Brigitte Cellino, Orchard Park resident Maggie Giamo, Snyder resident Grace Waters, Rochester resident Shannon Hakes, Honeoye Falls resident Ali Hills, and Batavia resident Katie Stack.
"In my mind, the easiest way to take care of our goalies' nerves is to give them a little cushion at the other end," Steele said. "We've got the firepower, so if we get a couple of big saves, we'll be in every game."
"Last year was the best hockey experience of my life, and from what I've heard, there are a lot of girls in the other regions who have moved on and won't be playing this year," said Giamo, a junior-to-be who will try to make the Quakers' boys team this winter after playing at Nichols last year. "We just have to play for each other and not worry about individual stuff. If we do that and go out there and give 100 percent, I think we have a good chance at winning the gold again."
Rounding out this year's roster are newcomers Kelsey Welch of East Amherst, Heather Lindgren of Buffalo, Jillian Cardella of Rochester, Danielle Drabin of Rochester, Mackenzie Lee of Caledonia, and Abby Runyon of Fairport up front, as well as Jacquie Greco of Clarence and Kristina Moss of Webster in back.
"Being one of the youngest on the team, I feel a little bit of pressure, but I'm excited to be part of the team," said Greco, who will be a sophomore at Nichols this year. "I just want to make sure everyone stays focused and brings their 'A' game because those two things will be important to our chances."
While much is still up in the air at this time, once Western steps onto the ice in two weeks, it will have a huge target on its collective back. That, however, is just fine for Steele and her players.
"Being the defending gold medal team as well as the hosts this year, we'll definitely have a bigger target on us than usual," Steele said. "We definitely have more to play for, so hopefully we don't put too much pressure on ourselves."
Women's ice hockey games will be played at the Monroe Community College Campus's ESL Sports Centre, 2700 Brighton Henrietta Townline Road in Rochester.