By Larry Moko
One of the trailblazers in Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic girls’ high school hockey has guided the St. Mary Crusaders to a 2019-20 championship in the sport.
Jim Brown, who coached the Crusaders when the league got off the ground in 1997, was behind the bench Tuesday at Morgan Firestone Arena as St. Mary defeated the St. John Henry Cardinals, 2-0, in the final.
“It’s been a while,” Brown said of St. Mary’s drought between titles. “We won the championship in 2000 and 2001, so it’s 18 years since the last time we won.”
Veteran St. Mary assistant coach Bob DiFrancesco said Brown took the program from its grass roots – explaining the basics of the game to players – to where it is today.
From 2010-13, Brown also coached women’s university hockey at McMaster.
“I think in terms of skill level, there is definitely a difference in the last 20 years,” Brown said.
“Absolutely. The parents are spending a lot of time and money on these kids to get them better by playing at a competitive level (with rep teams).”
First-place St. Mary opened the scoring with 12 minutes remaining in the third period on a powerplay goal by Kendra Ruhl. She was in the slot and deflected a hard slapshot by defenceman Olivia Stock past Newman goaltender Megan Warrener.
“Olivia is very good at drawing the puck to the middle of the ice and firing to get the best angle,” Brown said. “And she kept the puck low enough so that we could get a stick on it.”
The Cardinals threatened late in the third when defenceman Payton Bennett – headed to Ball State University this summer on a golf scholarship – rushed down the wing and blasted a shot off the goal post.
With a St. Mary player in the penalty box for the final 79 seconds, Newman pulled its goalie to play six skaters on four. However, Sydney Hiltz gained control of the puck deep in the Cardinals zone and scored the insurance marker with 31.2 seconds left.
Teya Lakhanpal – one of five Grade 12 players on the St. Mary roster – was in goal for the shutout.
“I got lucky,” Hiltz said of her goal. “I beat the girl on the base line, took it out and put it in the empty net.
“I’m really excited. I’ve been playing at St. Mary since Grade 9 and I’ve never experienced a win like this before.”
Hiltz, who was stopped by Warrener on two breakaway shots, has committed to play at the university level for the York Lions next season. Said Brown: “Sydney has earned the opportunity to take her game to the next level. She’s a competitive player who is highly skilled and has great work ethic.”
Both the Crusaders and Cardinals advance to the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Conference playoffs on Wednesday, March 4. St. Mary will travel to Burlington’s Central Arena to take on the Assumption Crusaders in a AA championship contest, while Newman faces the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Mainway Arena in a AAA semifinal.
“We’re lucky we have the opportunity to go to GHAC,” Newman assistant coach Heather Mamone said.
“This is our third time in the championship and the third time we’ve come away with a silver medal. We have top-notch athletes and today we played to St. Mary’s level. Our girls played a really good game and can hold their heads high. We’re hoping to play well again tomorrow and have a different outcome.”
Mamone said in the past six years Newman progressed from barely have enough skaters on the ice to qualifying for the final in each of the last three years.
According to Brown, St. Mary’s strategy against Newman was to have a strong forecheck and take away their first pass.
“When we played them the last time,” the Crusaders coach said, “they did a pretty good job of making a first pass which allowed them to get the puck to our zone real quick.”
Second-place Newman finished one point behind St. Mary in the standings. And, in their two meetings, each team won once.
Other St. Mary players include Hannah Venema, Shannon McDonald, Peyton Blaney, Mikayla Giannone, Morgan Giannone, Margarette Donato, Noriya Lakhanpal, Jessica Bonneville, Vanessa DiFazio, Claudia Hamilton, Hailey MacDougall, Riley Harwood, Maya Baker, Paige Sheehan and Mikayla Muldoon.
Source: Marnie Jadon