For the third time in five years, the Big Sky Wildcats 19-and-under girls hockey team is headed to the USA Hockey Tier II National Championships. As the puck drops today in Lansing, Michigan, the Wildcats are looking to prove themselves amongst the best 12 teams in the country.
The Wildcats, which feature a trio of players from the Flathead Valley, rolled into nationals after a two-game sweep of Team Wyoming in the Northern Plains District championship. Big Sky won eight of its last 10 games entering this week’s tournament.
“I’ve been pretty impressed with this team this year,” Wildcats coach Steve Tartaglino said.
“They’ve been working hard. They set some goals early in the season and they’ve been working hard to accomplish them.”
The Wildcats are 14-10-2 this season, but turned things around at the district tournament, when they were able to play with a full team. The nature of being a select team from the six 19U teams in the Montana Amateur Hockey Association, which ranges from Miles City to Missoula, has meant very little time practicing as a team.
“(The district championship) was the first time we’ve had the entire team together,” Tartaglino said.
“It took them two games to start to gel, but they did what they needed to do. They worked well together and it showed on the scoreboard.”
Kalispell’s Stephanie Tartaglino, Steve’s daughter, scored five goals in the two-game series, netting an overtime-winner in the first game to complete a hat trick and scoring two more in the decisive 8-2 victory in the second game. Stephanie, now on her third and final trip to nationals, has scored a team-high 19 goals in her ninth season with the Wildcats.
“It’s exciting,” Stephanie Tartaglino said. “I didn’t think I’d get to do it again. It’s a whole new group of girls and they welcomed me with open arms. I’m happy to be back.”
Stephanie is one of three girls on their third trip to nationals, along with Tylar Holland and Sawyer Heacock-Chambers. Many girls are also making their second trip, including Sonja France, the team leader with 12 assists and 23 points.
Kalispell’s Kacie Barrett and Whitefish’s Laurel Davidson round out the members from northwest Montana. There are eight Missoula players and three from Bozeman.
The Wildcats open the tournament today against the Princeton (New Jersey) Tiger Lilies, winners of the Atlantic District. On Friday, Big Sky will play the Armstrong Arrows, the Mid-Am District champions from outside of Pittsburgh. They close pool play on Saturday against Sabre, the Heartland champions from the Chicago suburbs.
The (Fairbanks) Alaska Icebreakers and the Boston Shamrocks are join Big Sky in the American pool. The National pool contains teams from Portland, Maine; Marquette, Michigan, from the state’s Upper Peninsula; Utah; Cazenovia, New York (Syracuse area); Bedford, Massachusetts (Boston suburb); and Rochester, Michigan, from suburban Detroit.
The top four teams from each pool advance to the single-elimination tournament quarterfinals.
Big Sky played Portland (Maine) at nationals in 2013, losing 3-2 in pool play, the only team from the field it has seen prior to this week.
Last season’s champions, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, didn’t qualify for the tournament.