The top girls hockey team at Nichols brought home North American Prep Hockey Association titles in each of the last four seasons, rolling through tournaments in Quebec, Syracuse and Vermont.
Championship No. 5 was up for grabs this weekend in the friendly confines of HarborCenter, but the hosts were stunned in the quarterfinals Saturday morning, losing to seventh-seeded Rice Memorial of Burlington, Vt., 1-0.
“We were thrilled to be here locally,” coach Scott Welch said. “We’ve always been on the road and we’ve never been able to win something at home. Unfortunately this year that’s not going to happen for us but the kids were really excited to play in Buffalo this year.
“We came out slow,” he said of the loss. “We outshot Rice 2-to-1, so give them credit, their goalie made some good saves. We just came out uncharacteristically slow, slower than we normally do. We missed some great opportunities and you’re not going to win many games when you don’t score a goal.”
Relegated to the tournament’s consolation round, the final two games of the weekend serve as a sendoff for Nichols’ seniors and prime scouting opportunities for the underclassmen. Nichols is sending three seniors to Division I next year and has many younger players who hope to follow in their footsteps.
Fittingly, Nichols’ underclassmen stole the show in Saturday afternoon’s consolation game, beating New Brunswick’s Rothesay Netherwood School (RNS), 3-1, with a number of college coaches on hand.
Freshman Katelyn Knoll had a point on all three goals, setting up sophomore Ciara Barone late in the first period and scoring twice in the second. Sophomore goalie Jada Brenon stopped 34 of 35 shots in her second game of the day and was perfect in the final period, where Nichols was outshot 17-4 while protecting a two-goal lead.
“For the underclassmen, it was about playing for the seniors,” Knoll said. “This is their last tournament. Even though we lost and it was a heartbreaker it’s still about finishing strong, which is the motto for our team.”
That seemed appropriate for the Vikings, who showed no quit even when forced to play hours after being eliminated. Asked about the culture of his program that kept his players going and allows so many of them opportunities to play at the next level, Welch’s answer was fit for a brochure: “We get kids who are really committed,” he said, “really focused and willing to challenge themselves academically as well as on the ice.”
His players emphasized their team-centric philosophy in an unusual way. Michele Robillard, a top scorer who will play at Mercyhurst next year, said she had no idea where she ranked on team’s leaderboard. In fact, none of the players seemed to know. Even Abigail Welch, the coach’s daughter, said she had never bothered to take a peek at her stats on her father’s iPad.
“Team wins,” she said. That’s the only stat they focus on.
In that category, the Vikings came up three short this year. They close out the tournament Sunday morning and will try to finish strong one more time.
“We’re trying to do that for our seniors and for our school,” Knoll said. “It’s the name on the front.”