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Jr. Sharks’ 19U AA girls squad revels in USA Hockey Tier II national championship

 

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When she notched the overtime winner at the USA Hockey Pacific District tournament, Evelyne Blais-Savoie made sure the San Jose Jr. Sharks 19U AA girls would be making a USA Hockey Youth Nationals appearance.

A month later, Blais-Savoie made sure the championship was coming West.

Blais-Savoie tallied a natural hat trick and goaltender Angela Hawthorne stopped all 15 shots she faced in the title game in the Detroit suburb of Troy, Mich., on April 10, leading the Jr. Sharks to a 4-0 win over the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Cougars to garner a USA Hockey Tier II national title.

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“That was a fun game to be a part of,” said Blais-Savoie. “We all enjoyed the experience of being at nationals and to cap it off with a championship is an incredible feeling.”

After going 2-1 in the round-robin portion of the tournament, the Jr. Sharks entered the playoff round playing some of their best hockey of the season, but still managed to take it to another level with their season on the line. The Jr. Sharks won three playoff games by a combined score of 14-1, and assistant coach Amanda Long said the coaching staff witnessed a true team effort.

“There was something special about how this group came together as a team,” said Long. “Everyone knew when it was their time to step up. Not everyone had their best game every night, but when someone wasn’t performing at their highest, someone else would step in and fill that role and pick up the slack.

“At that point, these girls were rolling on all cylinders. There was just no way these girls were going to slow down. There was no way they were going to give up and hand everything away. Everything was focused on the best performance everyone could put in for the rest of the season.”

In opening the tournament with a tight 2-1 win over the Connecticut Northern Lights, Long said that while nerves were a factor, being able to pull out a victory set the tone for the tournament.

“The first game the girls were nervous, for sure, although I don’t know that any of them would admit it,” Long said. “We got there a day early to practice before the tournament started, and that was good for us because it helped the girls get settled in a bit. But I would say even though they played a little nervous, once they came through that first game with the win that it kind of reinforced in them that they belonged at this tournament and we really just got back to the way we had been playing all season.

“It definitely woke them up a bit.”

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A 5-1 win over the Brewster (N.Y.) Lady Bulldogs put the Jr. Sharks to 2-0 in pool play before the team dropped a hard-fought game to the Boston Shamrocks, losing 3-2 in overtime. It was following the loss to Boston that Long saw her team regroup for what was to be a dominating run through the playoff bracket.

“All the teams in our pool were really strong and presented tough matchups for us,” said Long. “Even though we had that loss in there, I think the competition and how close all those games were really pushed us to the top of our game.”

The Jr. Sharks girls 19U AA team is comprised of forwards Evelyne Blais-Savoie, Juliette Blais-Savoie, Angelina Cruzal, Sierra Donahue, Celine Long, Kiley Searles, Ria Stevens, Sarah Takahashi and Marisa Trevino; defensemen Emily Burke, Theresa Chickles, Maxx Goodman, Claire Peterson, Alexandra Stout and Olivia Wilburn; and Hawthorne in net. Bobby Long joins Amanda Long on the bench.

Driving the offense in the playoffs was Blais-Savoie, who notched five of her tournament-leading seven goals in the final three games. Long sees the sky as the limit for Blais-Savoie, who at 14 years old was the youngest player in the tournament.

“She’s special,” said Long. “Her ability to go out there and get goals when we need them the most is incredible. She’s physical, she plays big, and it’s hard to explain what she brings to this team. She played so well at this tournament – I don’t think she had a bad game all week. What she brings and her ability to put the puck in the net is huge. She’s got stamina, speed – she’s got it all. And being so young on top of it – she’s got such a bright future.”

At the other end of the ice, Hawthorne and the Jr. Sharks defensive core slammed the door, allowing only 53 shots on goal in their three playoff wins. Hawthorne – who as the only goaltender on the team played every game this season, over 70 in all – was rock-solid in goal for the Jr. Sharks, just as she has been all season.

“The thing about Angela is she is just so reliable,” said Long. “She’s so focused. When she sets her heart out to do something, she puts everything into it. As a coaching staff, we’ve been working with her on playing more aggressive and taking away the top part of the net and at nationals, it was really evident how much work she put into that by how successful she was. Even in the games she didn’t face as many shots, she was still so solid. To have someone that’s there every game of the season, whether she’s sick or injured or whatever, she was there the whole time and performing at a high level.”

While winning a national championship is a huge milestone for any organization, both Long and Jr. Sharks director of player development Mike Janda see an even bigger accomplishment for the Jr. Sharks program because of the win.

“This shows the girls in Northern California that they have a landing spot to help them get to the next level,” said Janda. “Now, we show our 10Us, 12Us, and 14Us that they can stay in San Jose, play 19U, have success, and we can get you to college, which is the ultimate goal.”

Long agrees, and feels a national championship at the 19U level doesn’t just benefit that age group, but instead the benefits are going to be felt across the organization.

“One of the biggest things is that people across the country are starting to recognize is the amount of talent we have out here on the West Coast, and especially in Northern California,” said Long. “The great thing is the exposure it gets for our program, and it shows players don’t have to leave our area. It’s important for us to keep our homegrown players here, and we don’t want them to feel like they have to leave to get a better opportunity.

“This win proves that we can still accomplish our goals if people buy in to what we are doing and people work hard and trust in the opportunities we are providing for them.”

Top photo/Hockey Weekly Action Photos

— John B. Spigott