The scoreboard read Hill School 1, Shady Side Academy 1, with just over three minutes to play in the third period on Sunday afternoon. But Hill girls ice hockey coach Ari Baum knew differently.
“At that point, you’re treating it like sudden death,” he said. “Shady Side’s goaltending is their strength, and she’s had our number in the past, especially in the past.”
But after two straight years of frustrating, 1-0 losses to Shady Side (Pittsburgh) in the title game, senior Sami Shoebottom changed the course of women’s ice hockey at the Hill, finishing on a shot from the high slot to give the Blues a 2-1 victory and their first Women’s Interscholastic Hockey League of the Mid-Atlantic (WIHLMA) championship.
The Blues wrapped up their season at 21-9, giving their five graduating seniors the satisfaction of upending three-time defending WIHLMA champions Shady Side.
For Coach Baum, Shoebottom’s goal—and the entire afternoon—was a culmination of a six-year rebuilding project that began when he came from New England to accept the head coaching job at the Hill in 2012.
When it comes to restoring or rebuilding a program or team to athletic prominence, “Trust the Process” is the preferred inspirational mantra in our area. But that wouldn’t have helped Baum back in 2012—there were no draft picks, salary cap tricks or other resources to utilize. All he could do was roll up his sleeves and get to work.
“Hill School didn’t become coed until (the class of 1999), so there’s not a long, storied history in female sports,” he explained. “They started the first girls ice hockey program in 2001, but the program had basically bottomed out by the time I arrived.”
As such, Baum’s first year was more or less a learn-to-skate situation.
“We didn’t really have many players who’d played in the past,” he said.
Baum’s background was at a Connecticut prep school where he’d recruited players to build the best team possible, and he’d come to Pottstown to accomplish the same with the girls team.
“Each year, we’d add a few kids, and then in 2015-2016, we were up and running, able to be competitive with other programs.”
Baum lived by the motto that “slow growth is sustainable growth” and he set out to continue that ascent, taking Hill from the bottom, to the middle of the pack, and finally to the mountaintop. That last step would prove to be the most difficult of all, as Baum and the Blues suffered through those two heartbreaking championship losses to Shady Side in 2016 and 2017.
On Sunday, the Blues took that final step.
“We beat some really strong teams this year,” he said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Baum says any school looking to build a girls ice hockey program should be prepared for a similar journey.
“It takes time, and it takes a lot of people supporting each other in different roles,” he said. “Some jobs, like mine, are the fun ones—but a lot of people have assured our success, from the admissions office to our headmaster, Mr. (Zack) Lehman, who came out to the games this weekend. The chairman of our board and trustees just sent me an email. It takes a lot of people and a lot of time—you can’t do it alone.”
Of course, none of it would matter without the players. This year’s graduating seniors—Shoebottom, Elizabeth Buck, Laela DeFilippo, Nicole Guidi, and Cannady Taleghani—will always have a special place in the program, but they’ve paved the way for the program mantra of slow, sustained growth to continue into the future.
Six years ago, perhaps Baum’s greatest challenge was the lack of a legacy in female athletics at the Hill School. Now, largely due to Baum and his players, they’ve built one.
Perkiomen Valley upended Boyertown Friday night, 3-1, to create a tie for the fourth and final spot in next week’s PAC postseason tournament. The team have split their season series and stand tied at 4-5-0, so if this week’s contests do not settle the matter, the last playoff spot will come down to ICSHL tiebreaking criteria.
Before any of that becomes necessary, however, Boyertown takes on Spring-Ford while PV battles Owen J. Roberts this week. Hopefully, the matter will be decided on the ice.
OJR, St. Joe’s Prep and Spring-Ford have clinched spots in next week’s semifinals, to be held Monday night at Oaks Center Ice. The semifinal survivors will move to Ice Line in West Chester for Thursday night’s PAC championship game.
This Week’s Schedule
Wednesday >> Boyertown at Ridley, 7 p.m., Ice Works (Aston).
Thursday >> Spring-Ford at Boyertown, 8:30 p.m., Oaks Center Ice.
Friday >> Owen J. Roberts at Perkiomen Valley, 7:15 p.m., Oaks Center Ice.
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