JACKSON, Wyo. — You wanna miracle on ice? Look no further than the girls U19 team from Jackson.
Even as the nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of a scrappy USA Olympic hockey team defeating all-powerful Russia, another David-and-Goliath story was playing out on ice in Cody, Wyoming last weekend.
Big, bad villain
The part of Goliath (USSR) is played by Cody in this hockey saga. Under the banner “Park County,” the Cody Ice Cats have owned girls hockey in Wyoming since, well, as long as anyone can remember. King Cody has been simply dominant. How dominant?
Five straight state titles dating back to the 2014-15 season. During their run, standout forward Jessica Shankle racked up an insane amount of goals—61 in 2017, 60 in 2018. This year, as a ‘super-senior’ (meaning she has already graduated high school but is still eligible to play at 19 years old), Shankle was scoring at the rate of two goals per game…minimum.
And defensively the Ice Cats have been stingy. Senior goaltender Kayla Kolpitcke is a puck-stopper extraordinaire. On her way to 14 wins this season she notched nine shutouts. Never did she allow more than three goals in any one game.
Going into the playoffs last weekend, Cody (16-2-2) had a goal differential of 80—best in the state. They scored an average of five goals a game and gave up just one. Only Laramie had beaten the mighty Ice Cats this season, but Cody dispatched them in the playoffs 2-0 on Saturday.
And talk about having your number. In four regular season meetings between Jackson and Cody, the Ice Cats had their way with the Lady Moose. Jackson came up short every time, outscored by a 21 to 5 margin.
In the second day of the playoffs Saturday, it looked no different for the Jackson girls. They lost to Cody again, for the fifth time this season, in the preliminary round. Shankle scored twice for the Ice Cats and Kolpitcke slammed the door shut. Final score: Cody 4, Jackson 1.
Why would anyone expect a rematch with the mighty Cody Ice Cats on Sunday to turn out any different?
“I told the girls all season long it’s about winning the last game of the year,” said seven-year head coach Carl Hee. “And we’ve always played well against [Cody]. We’ve just come up short because they had a goalie that was arguably the best in the state and has been for years.”
So, it’s all doom and gloom for Jackson, right? Well, this wouldn’t be Miracle on Ice II if that were the case and, reading ahead, you can probably guess already how this one ends. We’re just making sure the reader understands just how improbable a Jackson victory over Cody was going to be when the two teams faced off Sunday night for all the marbles.
Jackson earned its way to the championship game after an opening-round win over Laramie by a 3-1 score. The following day the Moose got past a tough Rock Springs team that ended up taking 3rd in the state tournament by a score of 3-2. Then it was the 4-1 loss to Cody later that night.
With Laramie and Rock Springs squaring off in the consolation game, the stage was set for a winner-take-all rematch showdown between Jackson and Cody on Sunday.
To be fair, the Lady Moose were not exactly a ‘David’ all year. Like the USA hockey team of 1980, Jackson has been a very good hockey team and was beginning to find itself as the season went along. Jackson’s 15-5 record was no fluke and second-best in the division. Both Cody and Jackson were riding winning streaks (Cody unbeaten in its last seven, Jackson had won six straight) headed into the playoffs.
Paced by the strong play of Gabby Batchen, who finished the season with team-leading 32 goals, and Quinn Ellingson, who notched a team-high 32 assists, the Moose were capable of scoring in bunches. In fact, Jackson led all teams, even Cody, in goals per game with 5.8.
Miracle on Ice
But even the most optimistic had little reason to believe Jackson was ever going to be able to hang with Cody in the title game. On paper, Cody is bigger, faster, and more experienced. The Lady Moose are young and not quite as talented.
But Jackson had a secret weapon Cody knew nothing about: They’ve been ‘punching meat’ on the DL getting ready for this one. Translation: They prepared old school for their moment in the sun.
Bag skates, 2-on-1s, over-speed drills—you name it, these girls practiced it ‘til their legs burned. Since early November they worked on everything—smooth line changes on the fly, power-play set up, neutral zone trapping, aggressive penalty killing, generating turnovers and polishing their transition game. Come Sunday, February 23, the Lady Moose were ready for anything.
And Cody had no idea what was coming.
“We were tired of losing to those guys,” Hee admitted. “I told our girls, ‘If we’re going to beat these guys we’ve got to get in the trenches and get our hands dirty.’ Being the underdog means we’ve got nothing to lose and everything to prove.”
Jackson’s starting goalie was unable to play, so it was up to a borrowed 14-year-old from Salt Lake named Sally Sweeney to hold the fort for the Moose. Sweeney had been called on to play with Jackson on a few other occasions during emergency situations and she’d always been reliable.
This time, with the heat on, Sweeney never looked back. Not once.
After a scoreless first period, assistant coach TJ Thomas says the coaching staff stressed the positives.
“We were shutting down their super-senior [Jessica Shankle] and she’s pretty dang good,” Thomas noted at the first intermission. “At 0-0, we had confidence then. We felt good about the way we were playing.”
It was the game plan going in: Every time Shankle touched the puck she was to be hounded. No time and space. Get in her face often and eventually, you’ll get in her head.
“[Shankle] frustrates easily and we knew the more we frustrated her, the more she’d be off her game. And you have to hand it to the girls. They responded. They were all over her,” Hee said.
Then, with 6:38 gone in the second period and Jackson on the power play, freshman August Otto broke open the scoring and the Moose bench erupted.
“That goal by August was huge! It’s always great to get the first goal,” Hee said.
With Cody still reeling, Gabby Batchen tallied less than a minute later on a beautiful redirect of a Valerie Stevenson shot, and the Lady Moose had the most improbable of leads, 2-0, headed into the second intermission.
Still, no lead is safe against the Ice Cats and, in hockey, a two-goal lead is considered the worst—enough to make the leader think they can sit on it, but slim enough that the team trailing can easily climb back into the game.
“We knew the next goal would be big either way,” Hee said.
There was jubilation on the bench marked by an undertone of doubt. Hee stressed to the team they could not afford to let up.
Thomas added, “After the second period, we reminded the girls that no other team skated harder at practice all year than they did. No one worked more on their conditioning. We knew we would have stronger legs in the third than Cody.”
Jackson hit the ice for the third period with no sign of weakness but could not seem to stretch their lead. Then, midway through the final period, Batchen was hauled down on a partial breakaway. The referee gave Jackson coaches the option of a 2-minute power play or a penalty shot.
Hee didn’t hesitate.
“I wanted their goalie to feel some pressure so I went with the penalty shot,” he said.
Batchen buried it for a 3-0 lead and the route was on.
“That was the nail in the coffin,” Hee said.
Ellingson added a bit of insurance for a 4-0 lead, and Katy Yarrow put a fork in the Cats with just over three minutes to play to give the Jackson Lady Moose a 5-0 win over powerhouse Cody for the 2020 Girls A State Championship.
“It was the hard work of these girls paying off. Everything came together at the right time in the final game,” Thomas said. “In the end, our girls just wanted it more than those Cody girls.”
Hee agreed, calling the win a true team effort.
“I wanted us going in strong. And the way we finished that last game; we were definitely the hungrier, fitter team,” Hee said. “By the end of the game, Cody was out of gas.”
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