WEST HAVEN — To say Grace Nowak has had a pretty tough three years would be an understatement. After tearing her ACL her sophomore year, Nowak followed with an MCL tear a season after.
With a postseason title in mind, Nowak and the rest of her West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy teammates trained like no other year. The hard work paid off.
Making 26 saves, including 10 in a frantic third period, Nowak helped lead the top-seeded Westie Sharks to a 5-2 victory over No. 2 Guilford in the Southern Connecticut Conference Division I championship game at the Edward L. Bennett Rink Thursday evening.
“We came into the season wanting to win the SCC championship,” Nowak said. “That was our goal. I wanted to play my hardest and help my team.
“I tore my ACL my sophomore year and did not play. I came back and tore my meniscus. I did a lot of running and lifting to make sure I was as strong as I used to be.”
The title was the third in program history for the Westie Sharks and first since 2019 when WH/SHA topped Amity/Cheshire/North Haven.
“This group has worked extremely hard all season,” WH/SHA coach Erin Blake said after her team finished 9-0. “They have worked together as a team. They have all supported each other. I can’t say enough about this group of girls.”
— Mike Madera (@MikeMadera2) March 25, 2021
While Nowak was the star in net, both Mia Celentano and Jenna Hunt provided the offensive heroics as each finished with a goal and an assist.
Celentano, who was named the Most Outstanding Player, had numerous scoring opportunities, but it was her assist on freshman Taylor Alfano’s third-period tally that sealed the title for the Westie Sharks.
Celentano sent a perfect pass to Alfano, who skated to the right faceoff circle, before beating Guilford goaltender Julia McDonald for a 4-1 lead with 5:04 gone by in the third period.
“It was our last game together,” Celentano said. “I love my girls. We all played our hearts out. We showed up as a team and did it.”
Guilford (8-2) cut the deficit to 4-2 just 2:22 later on a goal by Sofia Cuozzo, but the Grizzlies never got closer. Nowak came up big when she denied Guilford star Maddie Epke in front with 6:58 left then turned Epke aside with a pad save with 1:42 left.
— Mike Madera (@MikeMadera2) March 25, 2021
“West Haven has a fantastic team,” Guilford coach Rick Binkowski said after losing to WH/SHA for the second time this season. “They get after it. They are a very deep team. The girls worked hard to get to this game. I am really proud of them. They played their hearts out.”
The Westie Sharks added an empty net goal by Jianna Cohrs, off an assist from Nowak, to cap the scoring.
“Grace Nowak made so many big saves,” Blake said. “She wanted this so bad. She wanted to prove it to herself. She worked really hard to come back.”
The two teams traded goals in the middle period as WH/SHA took a 2-1 lead. The Grizzlies had to consider themselves lucky as Celentano had two breakaways for the Westie Sharks, but shot wide with 2:25 left in the period and hit the crossbar with 20 seconds to go.
As they did in the opening period, the Westie Sharks came out flying to start the second and took a quick 2-0 lead when Geena Montano buried a rebound of a Hunt shot 1:07 into the second.
Maya Boyhen was denied by McDonald and the Grizzlies got within a goal two minutes later when Epke ripped a perfect shot through a screen past Nowak four minutes into the period.
Both Nowak and McDonald (30 saves) kept their teams in a close contest with several outstanding saves in the period, the best coming from McDonald when she turned aside a beautiful scoring chance by Cohrs in front with just over two minutes to go in the middle period.
After Guilford dominated for over 10 minutes in the opening period, the Westie Sharks got on the board first when Boyhen’s shot was denied by McDonald, but the rebound was tapped home by Celentano with 52.4 seconds left in the opening period for a 1-0 WH/SHA lead.
“They got that late goal in the first period,” Binkowski said. “That was a tough one.”
The Westie Sharks came out firing in the opening period as shots by Celentano and Boyhen were turned aside less than two minutes in.
The Grizzlies then took over. If not for the spectacular goaltending of Nowak, Guilford could have had a couple of goals on the board.
Nowak turned aside 11 shots in the first period, with her best coming when Epke flew past the WH/SHA defense, but was denied by a glove save with 9:46 left in the opening period.
Epke then fed Cuozzo in front, but Nowak made a great pad save, before the WH/SHA goaltender denied Epke in front with a blocker save with 4:33 to go in the first period.
Player of the Game
Mia Celentano — WH/SHA senior had numerous scoring opportunities in the game and came up big in the first and third periods. Celentano scored late in the first for a 1-0 lead, and assisted on a goal by Taylor Alfano in the third to seal the game with a 4-1 advantage.
“I am just so proud of them. They make me so proud. To see them come together in a season like this is amazing. They played their hearts out.”
— WH/SHA coach Erin Blake