SHERIDAN — The Sheridan under-19 girls team’s practice last Wednesday ended with pairs of skaters racing for the puck from the penalty box, through center ice and to the far boards at the Whitney Rink in the M&M’s Center. The players battled one-on-one or two-on-two for possession and skated toward goaltender Willow Koltiska, attempting to take a shot on net before their teammate stole the puck or knocked it away.
As the clock ticked past 7:50 p.m. and the official end of practice, several players kept returning to the starting position where assistant coach Patrick Mudd continued to shoot the puck. When the zamboni door rattled open, head coach Amanda Alexander called for a post-practice huddle at center ice and girls hugged and high-fived each other.
The energy and excitement Wednesday night showcased the biggest improvement the U19 Sheridan Hawks girls program experienced during their first season.
“There’s not really a favorite part [of the season],” Willow Koltiska said. “But at the beginning of the season, we were still trying to get to know each other, and now we actually have gotten to know each other, which has been fun.”
Friday through Sunday the Hawks will play in the Wyoming Amateur High School Association’s U19 girls state championship tournament in Pinedale and put their newfound team chemistry to the test. Sheridan’s 7-13 regular season record just missed the “A” bracket for the playoffs, but the skaters hold the No. 1 spot in the “B” bracket and will play Laramie at 3 p.m. Friday.
Sheridan split its lone two-game series with the Outlaws during the first weekend of play in November 2020.
Though the Hawks were disappointed with missing the “A” bracket, Alexander said she’s seen everyone from the youngest 11-year-old players and oldest 17-year-old player develop on the ice and bond off the ice throughout the season. The development of team chemistry has allowed Sheridan to play in competitive, close contests despite other U19 teams rostering mostly 16- to 19-year-olds.
“They’ve just grown a ton, and they’re playing so, so well together,” Alexander said. “They’re just having so much fun, too. … And their skill levels are just blossoming and improving a ton as well, individually.”
Though hanging out with new friends off the ice is a repeated favorite experience for the Hawks, Koltiska remembers Sheridan’s January weekend series against Pinedale as her favorite. The Glaciers beat the Hawks 6-1 Friday Jan. 22, but the Hawks rebounded to take game No. 2 by the same score Saturday morning.
Alexander recalls her team’s performance during its last weekend of regular play Feb. 5-7 as the epitome of the Hawks development during the season. Sheridan lost 6-1 to Miles City Friday night, beat the Generals 4-1 Saturday morning and played the No. 1 team in the state Jackson to a close 5-3 loss Saturday evening.
During the program’s inaugural season, Sheridan averaged 3.7 goals per game and allowed an average of 3.65 goals, according to statistics kept by the WAHA. Both rank as the sixth-best marks in the nine-team league.
Amelia Stopher led the Hawks with 27 points in 20 games played, scoring 16 goals and recording 11 assists. Four other Sheridan players also finished with double-digit point totals — Georgia Gould (7 goals, 5 assists), Brooke Alexander (7g, 5a), Avery Nikirk (8g, 3a) and Mallorie Akers (6g, 5a).
Goaltender Koltiska finished the regular season with a 4.64 goals against average and a .844 save percentage. She said there’s a healthy amount of nerves among the players heading into playoffs but just as much excitement to play in the postseason.
Alexander and her assistant coaches have coached their players, whose average age is 13 years old, similarly to how they have been coaching all season. The coaching staff doesn’t want to put too much pressure or stress on the Hawks heading into playoffs, and the fun-loving attitude seen throughout the season has proven fortuitous previously.
“They’re super excited and pumped to be able to have a chance to win something and be able to just play in [playoffs],” Alexander said.
Carsyn Thompson can’t choose one game or series as her favorite moment this season but points to being part of the restart of the U19 girls program, which returned to Sheridan after an over five-year hiatus. She’s seen the different ages bond together to be a part of the historic season.
Regardless of the U-19 team’s performance during the playoffs, the bond created between teammates and a seven-win season for the first-year program serves as successes in Alexander’s eyes. Many, if not all, of the Hawks will return for next season and continue working to grow the girls game of hockey in Sheridan.
“We had absolutely no idea going into the season if we’d win any [games],” Alexander said. “And the fact that we’ve been able to win some and win some against really good teams has been encouraging.”