Grace Simmons’ journey to the finals of the state hockey tournament this year started at an unlikely place: a pizza party. Her traditionally powerful Kenmore team, winner of four straight Section VI titles, and Grand Island agreed to merge their teams for the 2015-16 season. Before everyone played together, a social gathering of some sort was needed to break the ice among teammates.
“Before the season started, we had a meeting in Grand Island,” Simmons said. “We had pizza and cookies. It was kind of awkward at first because the girls from Kenmore sat on one side, and the girls that came from Grand Island sat on the other.”
When the team staged its tryouts after that, everyone still was a little uncomfortable with the new arrangement.
“But soon we played name games and learned each other’s names,” Simmons said. “Now they are some of my best friends on the team.”
Naturally, winning helped create that feeling of togetherness, as the five Grand Island players became a nice fit on the roster. The newly named Kenmore/Grand Island team won another sectional crown, and made it all the way to the state championship game.
Simmons, a senior on defense, played a huge role in the excellent season. She was named to the 2015-16 All-Federation first team.
“It was an amazing senior year,” Simmons said. “I got pretty much a whole new team this year. Even with the girls I played with before, it was a whole new dynamic.
“We thought it was going to be a rebuilding year, but it turned out to be a great year.”
The transformation wasn’t instantaneous. There were a few bumps on the way.
“There were a couple of games when I went, ‘Oh, no,’ ” she said. “At other times, I thought that this was a great team and we’re going to go far. Once we got into the sectional playoffs and once we started playing Kenmore/Grand Island hockey, that’s when I knew we were going to the states again.”
Simmons even supplied a definition of “Kenmore/Grand Island hockey”: “We are extremely hardworking. We don’t have all the Tier 1 players – we have a couple – but we are made up of hard workers that never give up.”
The team lost to Alexandria Bay in the state final by a goal, which Simmons described as nerve-wracking and heartbreaking at the same time. But team didn’t have long to wallow in that.
“Then we had league playoffs, so we couldn’t sit for very long,” she said. “You have to bounce back and keep playing.”
That second championship was won by the Monsignor Martin Association team, its second straight such crown and fourth in five years. As could be expected, both teams are well-represented on the All-Federation team.
Simmons saw teammate Olivia Smith join her on the all-star squad. Smith was the team’s top scorer throughout the season, and the junior should break the team record for points in a career next season. She has 101 to Emily King’s 107.
Monsignor Martin had three players picked. Brianna Gawronski recorded the shutout for her team in a 2-0 championship game win over Williamsville. She goes to Mount Mercy Academy. Maeve Christ plays defense, and she’s been a part of three championships in four years. Christ attends Mount St. Mary. Kaitlyn Drew-Mead of Sacred Heart was the offensive leader of the team, and made the All-Federation squad last season.
The other selection was Julia Mings, a forward from Amherst/Sweet Home/Clarence. She tied teammate McKenna Rushford for the league lead in points with 39.
Second team picks were goalie Victoria Cottrell of Frontier/Orchard Park, blue-liners Brianna Colucci of Lancaster/Iroquois and Samantha Gaffney of Williamsville, and forwards Leah Czerwinski of Williamsville, King of Kenmore/Grand Island, and Catharine Radwan of Msgr. Martin.
Linda Groff-Mroz of Msgr. Martin was picked as the coach of the year.