While ice hockey continues to grow in popularity for women and girls in the United States, it hasn’t yet reached a point where each local school district can sustain a full program of its own.
So for the past several years, a group of athletes from Owen J. Roberts and Boyertown High Schools have combined to form the Bearcats, the lone Inter-County Scholastic Hockey League representative from a Pioneer Athletic Conference school in the girls’ division.
Last Thursday, the Bearcats became 2019 ICSHL National Division champions for the first time, defeating Garnet Valley in a nail biter, 3-2.
Sophomore Ava Rinker scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner early in the third period, while Morgan Thrush turned away 20 Garnet Valley shots in the title-winning effort.
The victory was the crowning jewel of a 15-1-2 season that also saw the Bearcats defeat American Division champions Penncrest/Strath Haven, 1-0—making them the unofficial ICSHL Champions in the eyes of some team members.
But in reality, it was the culmination of much more—a journey that began when this year’s seniors were mere freshmen, looking for an opportunity to play high school hockey. The core of what became the first Bearcats squad came from players who played on the Mighty Moose club team out of Power Play Rinks in Exton.
“The truth is, there just aren’t a lot of girls’ hockey players,” said Mike Hansen, first-year coach of the Bearcats and father of defender Payton Hansen. “That’s why we were combining (two schools) to make a team.”
The Bearcats built over those first couple seasons to a point where the team made their biggest leap forward last year, qualifying for the championship game last season against perennial Flyers Cup contender Unionville. But in what some felt was the Bearcats’ best—and potentially last, due to significant losses to graduation—chance, they fell 5-3 in the final game. Suddenly, an uncertain future faced the club—for one, their coach would not be returning, as his daughter was one of the graduating seniors. The team also lacked an experienced goalie and sufficient depth.
After a tumultuous summer of starts and stops, an announcement went out on Sept. 9 that there would be no 2018-2019 Bearcats season. Unwilling to accept this outcome, team parents and players sprung into action, the biggest break coming when Mike Hansen stepped into the head coaching role.
One large concern remained, however—costs. Hockey’s not a cheap sport to play, between equipment, tournament entries, and renting ice time from the few available facilities in the area. That last point was a sticky one, as many of the Bearcats players remain involved with club hockey.
“The cost of high school hockey can be pretty significant for those families whose daughters also play on a club team,” said Hansen. “As a result, some people weren’t sure whether they were going to play this year.”
So the Bearcats made a difficult decision, forgoing weekly practices in exchange to make the cost more affordable and allow more girls the opportunity to play.
“Going without a practice slot isn’t ideal,” Hansen allowed. “There are a certain number of girls who only come out for school hockey, and with us not having a practice slot, it created some challenges.”
“I wasn’t so sure how the season was going to go,” said Kalyn Mackey, a Boyertown senior who’s played the past four years with the Bearcats. “We only had one practice all year, so we had to rely on our bond from previous years.”
Mackey has played ice hockey since sixth grade, currently skating with not only the Bearcats, but with Boyertown’s JV boys’ team and the U19AA Jr. Flyers.
One challenge was that between no weekly practices and the fact the team was split between two high schools, there was no way for the team to naturally bond with one another. The advantage was that several of the players had ties through not only their club teams, but from previous Bearcats season that allowed them to develop a connection on and off the ice.
“It’s remarkable,” said Hansen. “I’d have to look through the roster to tell you who’s from OJR, and who’s from Boyertown. Obviously, I know my daughter and a few of her friends (go to OJR), but that’s the strength of the team—we’re all Bearcats.”
“Years ago, when we first started the program it was kind of awkward, being from different schools and all,” said Mackey. “But after a while, we came together and we played without even noticing who was from OJR or who was from Boyertown.”
Early victories over strong programs such as West Chester Rustin and Downingtown West didn’t hurt either, and 1-0 shutout victories over Garnet Valley and Penncrest/Strath Haven saw the Bearcats go into the holiday break with a spotless 10-0 record. The Bearcats’ first disappointment came after 12 straight victories, when they ran into their perennial tormentors Unionville and dropped a 3-2 decision.
“I think that game was a big confidence builder—we lost 3-2, but we outplayed them by quite a bit. It showed we could compete if we faced Unionville again,” said Coach Hansen.
Tie games against Downingtown West and Garnet Valley followed, but the final tilt of the regular season saw the Bearcats break their losing streak in a big way with a 5-0 win over Unionville. Coach Hansen explained that both teams were missing key players due to President’s Day weekend (a popular time for club tournaments) but the Bearcats now had two pieces of evidence they could hang with the defending champs.
The playoffs opened against Downingtown West, as the Bearcats claimed a 3-1 victory to advance to a championship where most figured they’d see Unionville yet again. However, Garnet Valley pulled the upset on that side of the bracket setting up the title game showdown between the Bearcats and Jaguars.
The Bearcats erased Garnet Valley’s early lead when Payton Hansen and Ava Rinker scored about one minute apart midway through the second period. With seven minutes remaining, Rinker doubled that lead with a shot that deflected by the Garnet Valley goaltender. GV would rally to cut the lead to one with 44 seconds remaining, but the Bearcats hung on to become ICSHL National Division champions.
For the team and their head coach, it was the perfect ending to a journey of several seasons, and a particularly tumultuous start to the 2018-2019 campaign.
“This team was always focused on having fun,” said Coach Hansen. “Of course we wanted to win the championship, but the atmosphere around high school girls’ hockey is about having fun with your teammates.
“This group was special. The team got along well, they played hard, and they enjoyed every step along the way.”
And that’s the main difference between club teams and high school teams—the long-distance travel and the cutthroat tryout structure are absent. Hansen says the level of competition will only improve as more girls take up the sport, and more schools add girls’ teams.
“I’ve been playing with these girls (on the Bearcats) for four years now—it’s like family—whereas with club hockey, I jumped back and forth between teams over the years and never got to build that same bond,” said Mackey.
“I don’t know of any girls in our two districts who aren’t playing because of competitive concerns,” Coach Hansen said. “They all want to play with their classmates, their peers—it’s more like a high school sport. And there’s never been any OJR vs. Boyertown-type competition on our team either—we’re the Bearcats.”
For the 2018-2019 Bearcats, defender Ava Rinker and forward Sam Hughes were named to National Division First Team, while Mackey, Faith McGee, Anna Ackerman, Lindy Schiffler, and Madison Twaddell are the team’s graduating seniors. Coach Hansen and the club encourage any interested female players to come out for next year’s squad as well.
Mackey said that next year when she heads to Bloomsburg for college, she’d like to create a club ice hockey team for women there as well.
“There’s no (women’s ice hockey) there right now,” she admitted, “and it might not happen right away. But I’d like to make it happen.”
If she’s successful, she imagines a group of players from different backgrounds who haven’t met and share one thing in common—a love for playing ice hockey.
“One thing I learned on the Bearcats is that if you have people who love the sport, you can bring people together,” she concluded. “It doesn’t always have to be the (best) players—you just need people who can have fun.”
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