HALLOWELL — Midway through last winter, Chris Downing realized he’d better start grooming his goaltender of the future. When he asked for volunteers, Cassie Demers stepped forward.

The junior on the Winslow/Gardiner girls hockey team has continued to take steps forward, emerging into a bona fide netminder for the playoff-bound Black Tigers. When considering that last season was the first time Demers had ever been on skates, it makes her development all the more impressive.

“She came in this summer and worked hard on it, and she’s been working hard on it ever since,” Downing said. “She actually goes out and finds extra ice time whenever she can so she can practice.

“She’s just a great kid. She’ll do whatever you ask her to do.”

One might wonder what would ever possess a right-minded individual to willingly volunteer to occupy the goalie position for the first time at the high school level, but Demers insists she never had a “what have I gotten myself into” moment — not last year when she got her first taste of game action at the junior varsity level, and certainly not this winter as the Black Tigers have gotten out to an 8-5-0 start to rank fourth in the North region.

“I’m beyond happy with where I am. I just love it,” Demers said.

Demers was happy to volunteer to learn the position last season. She felt like the goaltender position would be a natural one for her.

“I’m a catcher in softball, so it’s still about fast reflexes and always trying to make sure I’m keeping the puck in front of me,” Demers said, agreeing that tracking pucks in traffic is similar to following foul balls off bats in the spring. “My teammates have been really supportive and encouraging. They’re always telling me ‘good job’ and showing me the things I can work on.”

In the team’s most recent game, an 8-3 win over Yarmouth/Freeport at the Camden National Bank Ice Vault on Monday afternoon, Demers was stellar against one of the speediest teams the Black Tigers have played this season. In a second period in which Winslow/Gardiner took control of the game, Demers made three point-blank stops on Clippers captain Katie Clemmer.

Demers’ confidence might be rising with every save and every victory between the pipes, but Downing believes its actual technique that’s made the most difference in his goalie’s overall performance.

Asked to compare her efforts against Yarmouth/Freeport to a 7-0 loss to Edward Little in the season opener, Downing didn’t even have to think about it.

“There’s no comparison at all,” he said. “How’s that? There’s really no comparing the two.

“One thing is that she’s now coming out to challenge the shooter and not sitting back in the crease, and the second thing is she’s following the puck much better. It used to be that she’d lose it, but she’s learning how to follow the puck,” Downing added.

Asked to assess her learning curve, Demers points to the often-overlooked skill that is most inherent to playing hockey: Skating.

“Actually learning how to skate has been the biggest thing,” Demers said. “Goalie skating is different than regular skating. First I had to go from regular skating to goalie skating, which is actually a lot easier for me. And then there’s getting up and down with all that equipment on.

“I feel like I’ve become a lot more mobile on skates, and it’s easier for me to get up and down and easier for me to see the puck. I’ve just gotten so much more confidence in myself.”

The Black Tigers have won three straight, including an overtime victory over Gorham/Bonny Eagle. Twice this season, Winslow/Gardiner has won games in overtime and once more they’ve grabbed a win in the final minute of regulation.

You can’t post victories like those without a few key stops from your goalie along the way.

“I try not to focus on anything (except) that my goal is to stop the puck,” Demers said. “I don’t care how fast they are or how big they are. I’m going to stop the puck.

“I’ve learned that if I stay low, I have a better chance of stopping it. I know my teammates are there, and I have confidence in them that they’ll be there if I can’t get there.”

That confidence is reciprocal. Her teammates trust her, too.

“She’s a team player, and that’s the most important thing,” Downing said. “We’ve got eight wins under our belt. We haven’t seen that here in I don’t know how long.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC