SACO – The way Coach Matt Libby sees it, his national tournament-bound girls’ hockey team is just now getting to know each other.
From their first gathering in September until the end of the high school season, the Portland Junior Pirates girls’ U19 team played or practiced only on Sundays.
It was clear that Libby’s 14 players from nine different programs enjoyed each others’ company and appreciated the opportunity to play with similarly skilled and motivated players.
But really, how much knowledge could the Saco native who played at Providence College (1997-2001) and with the Portland Pirates (2002-2004) impart in just one day a week?
“It’s tough. These girls are really busy. They’re playing their fall sports, then they’re going to play for their high school hockey teams and now they’re getting ready for the spring sports,” Libby said.
Apparently it was enough for a strong foundation — the Junior Pirates won both the state and regional championships earlier this month to earn a trip to the USA Hockey Tier II Nationals held April 3-7 in San Jose, Calif.
“I’m ecstatic and I can’t wait. I’m really excited because I think for any girl, or any hockey player in general, the nationals are the ultimate goal,” said Meg Finlay, a senior at Greely High School.
“To be able to reach that our senior year, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish up my high school career.”
Twelve teams from around the country qualified for the tournament. The field is divided into two six-team pools. Each team plays three pool games with the top four advancing to the quarterfinal round on Saturday, April 6. Semifinals and finals are on April 7.
The Junior Pirates will face the East Coast Wizards of Massachusetts on Wednesday, the Washington Wild on Thursday and the Big Sky Wildcats from the Northern Plains region on Friday.
This is the second season of Portland Junior Pirates girls’ hockey. The U19 and U16 teams have advanced to the regional level both seasons. A U14 team was added this season. This is the first Junior Pirates girls’ team to qualify for the nationals. The boys’ U16 team went in 2011.
After posting a 10-8-2 regular-season record, the U19 team meshed in the postseason.
“I knew that it would be tough to get to the (regional) championship. I actually wasn’t expecting it so it was a pretty big deal that we made it to the championship and ended up winning,” said Sarah Martens, a Scarborough High senior. “Maine is probably one of the least likely teams to make it through.”
At the regional tournament, the Junior Pirates played five games in three days, with two each on Saturday and Sunday. They won both the semifinal and final in overtime on goals by Biddeford’s Katie Roy, a 50-plus goal scorer at Cheverus this past season.
“One was on a penalty kill, I was going around the goalie and she tripped me and it was literally like a Bobby Orr moment,” Roy said, referring to the iconic photo of Orr’s Stanley Cup winner. “I was literally airborne.”
The unexpected success put the pressure on to raise some extra funds to defray the personal travel costs of making the trip to San Jose.
Of the 14 players on the roster, 12 played in the Maine high school ranks this season.
The roster includes center Finlay and winger Paige Tuller of Greely; goalie Devan Kane, defender Samantha Nablo and Martens from Scarborough; York defender Kendall Carr and goalie Olivia Drew; defender Drew Barry of Portland/Deering; forward Ariel Potter of Yarmouth; and forward Jennifer Pepin of Sanford.
Pepin played on the Massabesic boys’ junior varsity team. Also on the team are Cape Neddick’s Gabrielle Boualavanh, who plays at Berwick Academy, and Sandra Strogen of Madbury, N.H. (Oyster River High).
Drew and Kane have split time evenly in the goal and been key parts of the team’s success. “Starting out, I never imagined we’d make it this far and be this tight and close together,” Martens said.
During Wednesday’s practice at the team’s home facility, the MHG Ice Center in Saco, it was easy to spot big grins behind the face masks.
“I always look forward to coming here because everyone here loves to play hockey and loves to have fun,” Carr said.
Libby said “That’s really the most important thing; having fun and enjoying the game. The girls do a very good job of that.”
Still, there is a vein of old-time hockey in Libby — he played ECHL games in the Johnstown Chiefs’ barn after all. He said he’s “been on the girls to prepare for games with a little more focus.”
Roy said that type of clarity of purpose will be needed at the Tier II nationals. “We just need to play our game … just do our thing and calm down.”
Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at: