If USA Hockey offers a group rate for Nationals berths, the Lady Ducks and Jr. Ducks should have no problem qualifying.
In what has to be considered one of the most successful weekends – if the most successful one – in the program’s history, the clubs had six teams win USA Hockey Pacific District championships at Sharks Ice in San Jose and qualify for the USA Hockey National Championships in early April in the Boston area.
The Lady Ducks captured titles at 14U AA and AAA, as well as at 16U AA and AAA. The LDs’ 19U AAA and Women’s C teams were uncontested in the district and also received Nationals berths. The six Nationals qualifiers are the most in the 19-year history of the Lady Ducks.
“The Lady Ducks did a phenomenal job,” Jr. Ducks Director of Coaches Craig Johnson said.
The Jr. Ducks captured Pacific District titles at 16U AAA and 18U AAA, giving its 5-year-old Tier I program its sixth and seventh Nationals berths. It also marks the second consecutive year both Midget teams earned trips to Nationals.
“What a great weekend for the entire organization,” Jr. Ducks Director of Player Personnel Alex Kim said. “One of the main goals for players and teams at this level is to advance to Nationals. It’s one thing to get that opportunity, but it’s another to seize it. All of these players are well deserving.”
The Lady Ducks have grown accustomed to having AAA teams advance to Nationals, but the AA teams’ emergence is particularly gratifying, Program Director Kathy McGarrigle said.
“We feel like we’re highly competitive at Tier I, but to have Tier II teams do so well is a dream come true,” she said. “To build a development system and have them win is pretty special. Our pathway is strong because we focus on development.”
That development includes some stunning examples, McGarrigle added.
“To see some of those girls on AA teams play hockey three years and become district champions is amazing,” she said. “I had girls on the 14 AA team who were in in-house last year. They just elevated their experience level at light speed.
“And coach Dani Ahumada prepared her 16 AA team so well. She took that on to develop these girls.”
The 14U AA team overcame an opening loss to the Washington Wild to win four games in a row, capped by a 3-2 victory over the Anchorage North Stars in the final. Maddie Lalonde’s goal at 13:17 of the third period was the winner. Bryce Fleming and Reese Sunada scored goals in the first period.
The 14 AAA team got two power-play goals from Sara Ito-Bagshaw and a third-period tally from Claire Ghantous in a 3-0 victory over the Jr. Sharks in the decisive game of the best-of-3 series. The LDs won the opener 5-1 before San Jose took Game 2, 2-1.
The 16U AA team ran the table, capped by a 3-2 victory over Anchorage in the final. Taylor Freestone scored two goals and Alexandria Young added one.
The 16U AAA team worked overtime to beat Anchorage for its Nationals berth. Emme Hayes scored 10:06 into the extra session to lift the Lady Ducks, 2-1, in the third game of the teams’ best-of-3 series. Alexandria Tillemans gave the LDs a lead midway through the third period, but the North Stars tied it with 10 seconds to play in regulation. Anaheim won an elimination game in the second game, 2-0, to give itself a chance to reach the final.
The Jr. Ducks’ 18U AAA team had to overcome a shootout loss to the Wenatchee Wolves in its first game. The 18s then beat the Alaska Oilers and edged the L.A. Jr. Kings, 8-7, in a shootout. The third game was as wild as the score indicates.
“It was a crazy, emotional game, as evidenced by our 13 penalties,” 18U AAA coach August Aiken said. “Before we played the Kings again in the final the coaching staff stressed staying focused. If we can stay out of the box we’re a tough team to play against because we’re a good skating team that moves the puck well.”
Mission accomplished. The 18s shut out the Kings, 6-0, to capture the district title. Val Ardizzone scored two goals, and Logan Harris, Zachary Pires, Dylan Reightley and Ryan Fischer each tallied one.
Aiken said the team’s second-year players (1999 birth years) provided crucial experience for the group. They also led the 18s to a semifinal berth at last month’s Tier 1 Elite League playoffs, a tournament they started seeded 15th.
“We realized we can compete with the top teams,” Aiken said. “Having all these players who have gone through adversity and know what it takes to win was huge.”
The 16U AAA team also started the tournament with a close loss, 3-2, to the Alaska Oilers, then rebounded to win four in a row, topping the Oilers in the final, 6-3. In between, they defeated the Jr. Kings twice.
“I thought our team played very well in the final,” Johnson said. “We had to kill off eight penalties, and the boys did a great job doing that. We had a lot of players who stepped up. It was a total team effort.”
In the final, Jackson Niedermayer scored two power-play goals, Benjamin Biester added two third-period goals, and Timothy Marchant and Joseph Harguindeguy added goals for the Jr. Ducks, who will join the 18U AAA team in Philadelphia for Nationals.
“We did a good job getting back to basics, remembering what we did as a team to have the success we had early in the season,” Kim said. “You can attribute the team’s success to the kids working hard and sticking together.
“This was a complete team effort. Both goalies (Tyler Shea and Ethan Lahmon) were really good, as they have been all season, our defense did a great job defending and all four lines chipped.”
Kim said the title was particularly gratifying because of the level of competition the team faced.
“This was one of the toughest districts we’ve been a part of,” he said. “That Oilers team was very good. Hats off to the Jr. Kings – they had a good run and have a good organization. They played us hard all season. The Everett program is doing a great job. And San Jose did a good job hosting.
“Hopefully all our teams will represent our district well.”
The eight teams could be joined by two more at Nationals as the Jr. Ducks have a total of four teams (two at 16U) competing in the boys Tier II CAHA State Tournament in the 12U, 16U and 18U divisions this coming weekend. 12U teams don’t compete at Nationals.
Johnson voiced what each of the qualifying team’s philosophy is as it prepares for Nationals, which run from April 5-9.
“If you’re going to peak, this is the time to do it,” he said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance to win, and we’re going to Nationals to win it.”