Girl power: The rise of girls hockey in Summit County
February 17, 2017
Hockey is hardly an old boy's club in the Rocky Mountains.
Starting today, the U-19 Summit Youth Hockey girls team — an unusually large squad at 18 total players — is given an unusual opportunity with four games remaining: win two or three (or even four) to earn a last-minute playoff berth, or close the season at seventh place in an eight-team league.
Some teams would crumble, some teams would simply accept defeat, but veteran coach Geoff Palmer's girls are ready to prove why their season shouldn't — and won't — be determined by stats.
"If we go O-4 our season is over, but it depends on how we do this weekend," said Palmer, who's back coaching the U-19 girls this winter for the first time since 2005. "We still have a chance to make the playoffs if we have a good weekend."
One level below the U-19s is the U-14 team, a state-bound group of 14 girls who represent Summit's next generation of female hockey. Most on the team have been playing together for more than five years and it shows: they've gone undefeated in tournament play this season, winning one at Steamboat in December and one at Vail over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and they enter the Mountain States Girls Hockey League championships in Denver on Feb. 24 as a force to be reckoned with.
For U-14 head coach Andrew Ash — a Summit County native who switched from skiing to skating when his daughter, starting defensewoman Taylor, was a youngster — that's the best reputation to have, even in a tough mountain girls league.
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"We've won two tournaments coming into state and the team is feeling good," Ash said. "It's great to have so much confidence, with a good group of girls and a great program."
Ice for all
But enough of this "will they, won't they?" tournament talk. Thing is, girls hockey in Summit County is enjoying something of a renaissance this season. Summit Youth Hockey is home to three girls teams — U-12, U-14 and U-19 —and the club recently hired a new assistant director, former NCAA Division I player Jackie Koetteritz, to oversee the girls teams. They're growing at such a rapid clip, in fact, that Palmer thinks there could easily be a U-16 team.
That is, if one existed.
"In a way, it's almost too many (players), but it's not enough for two teams," Palmer said. "We're making it work and it's worked out very well… Truth be told, if there was a U-16 league out there we might've had separate teams, considering the age ranges we have."
Instead of split into two teams, Summit's U-19 crew has practiced and played as one. Palmer admits there's a huge range of abilities, but part of the fun is finding who works best with whom.
The team's two captains, 16-year-old Mia Ammon and 18-year-old Laurel Schlegel, are the U-19s in a nutshell. Ammon has two years remaining while Schlegel is in her final season, but both girls agree their team has improved since the first games in October.
"We are all really supportive of each other," said Schlegel, who's the lone girl in a hockey family and first stepped onto the ice her freshman year. "There are definitely some beginners, including myself, but we just help each other get better. Everybody has the ability to improve."
Ammon's family doesn't have hockey in its blood, but she picked it up early and is now in her sixth season. She's gotten better in all aspects of the game, from skating to stick handling, and now sees her role as simply being the best captain she can be.
"I try to be someone people can look up to, on ice and off ice," Ammon said. "I try to make opportunities for everyone, holding myself to a higher standard no matter what happens. That's always my goal."
The U-19s last chance at a playoff berth begins today with two games against West Elk near Gunnison. It wraps up tomorrow with two final games against Telluride, the league's sixth-place team — and the only thing standing in the way.
"It's kind of cliché, but we have to play three full periods," Palmer said of the final four games. "We have a wide range of talent on the team. Getting the girls to work together within that scope is challenging, but it's also been a lot of fun this season. It's been great trying to put lines together and see who works well, regardless of their ability."
As the U-19 girls vie to knock Telluride out of the running, their U-14 counterparts have been sitting pretty most of the season. Part of it is the tournament wins, but those never would have happened without a tight-knit, fun-loving team. Coach Ash has already identified the secret ingredient: these girls simply love hockey.
"We've just had a good season leading up to the playoffs," Ash said. "I think that's really how we've gotten ready: is just playing a lot of hockey."
Summit's U-14s come to the state tourney as one of the best in the league, but taking the title won't be easy. Along with Colorado teams, the league is home to two regional teams — one from Salt Lake City, one from New Mexico — and both have been tough this season.
"Everyone that goes (to state) has good hockey and it ends up being a lot of fun," Ash said. "Sometimes you have those good seasons where things fall into place."
And if the U-14s just don't click next weekend at state? The outgoing U-19 captain has a message for the next generation.
"It's about always being a positive influence, supporting everyone and staying positive," Schlegel said. "It's about making sure we are confident and being the best we can be, win or lose."