In its first time appearing in the Southern Connecticut Conference championship game, the Guilford girls hockey team did not disappoint.
Behind three goals from sophomore sensation Maddie Epke, second-seeded Guilford defeated top-ranked Amity/North Haven/Cheshire 4-2 at the Edward L. Bennett Rink Saturday afternoon.
“We had no idea it would end up like this,” Epke said. “We just wanted to go farther than we did last year. To get this far for Guilford hockey and all girls sports is amazing.”
In what is the first league title for the Indians, Epke may have had the hat trick, but it was sophomore goaltender Julia McDonald who was named the Most Outstanding Player with 36 saves, including several superb stops on ANHC standout Tess Csejka.
“She played a great game,” Guilford coach Rick Binkowski said of McDonald. “She continues to get better and she is only a sophomore. The kid has ice water in her veins.”
Guilford (16-5) took an early lead and never trailed, despite allowing the Blades (13-8-1) to get within 3-2 in the third after holding a 3-0 lead.
Epke was at the center of attention for the Indians as she broke a scoreless tie with a goal to the top shelf off a breakaway with 6 minutes, 55 seconds left in the opening period.
The goal by Epke was the only tally of the period, thanks to the goaltending of McDonald and ANHC’s Jade Krukar. The duo combined for 24 saves in the opening period, with McDonald stopping Csejka with pad saves twice in a span of 1:35.
“We wanted to shoot low on her,” ANHC coach John Peschell said of McDonald. “We did not do that. She played outstanding.”
McDonald and Krukar combined for 22 saves in the middle period, before Epke increased the Guilford lead to 2-0 with 1:23 remaining in the second. Epke fired a shot to the top right corner, giving Guilford a two-goal lead heading into the third.
“She is a great player,” Binkowski said of Epke. “Everybody can see that. She gets the job done. She is a team player who brings everybody up with her. She is the type of kid who lifts the whole team and makes everyone around her better.”
Both teams knew the importance of scoring first in the third period, and it was Guilford which answered. Taking a pass from Daniella Vickerman, Jaime Nelebar’s point shot found the back of the net for a 3-0 advantage just 21 seconds into the final period.
“Down two goals, I thought if we got that first goal, we would get the ball rolling,” Peschell said. “That goal they got to start the third period hurt us. But, then we got that goal and another, and we started to get some momentum. We got going, but they got that quick one after.”
The Blades, defending SCC South champions, never quit and used a power play to get back into the contest, scoring twice in a span of 1:57 to get within 3-2 with 5:22 remaining in the game.
Caroline Cadelina scored off an assist from Nadia DiNatale for a power play goal with 7:19 left in the third, before the Blades got within a goal on a tally by DiNatale, off an assist from Avery DePodesta.
“The funny thing is in the big games, we have fallen behind and had to come back,” Epke said. “Today, we had the lead and we had to keep the lead. That is an experience for us which is good going into states.”
Epke stepped up for the Indians and took the wind out of the Blades when she tallied 55 seconds after DiNatale’s tally to give the Indians a two-goal cushion once again.
Krukar finished with 25 saves for the Blades.
Players of the Game
Maddie Epke and Julia McDonald: Epke scored three times and McDonald made 36 saves as Guilford won its first girls SCC title in program history.
“We had no idea it would end up like this. We just wanted to go farther than we did last year. To get this far for Guilford hockey and all girls sports is amazing.”
— Guilford’s Maddie Epke