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Hockey: U14 Blackcats take runner up at nationals

Front Row - Grace Dietzman(St Croix Valley Fusion), Amber DeLong(SCV), Abbie Delong(SCV), Sydney Seeley(SCV), Caitlyn Erickson(Western WI Stars), Nikki Olund(Hudson), Mallory Thompson(Hud.), and Maddie Buck(SCV) Back Row - Bailey Erickson(Asst. coach), Tony Erickson(Asst. coach ), Juneau Paulsen(SCV), Hailey Schumacher(SCV), Sydney Hahn(Western WI), Jaden Woiwode(SCV), Taylor Wandschneider(Hudson), Lilly Accola(SCV), Bailey Williams(WW), Quinn Winkoski(Hudson), and Mike DeLong(head coach) Submitted photo

TROY, Mich. -- When the high school hockey season ended in early March, a new season began for 16 local athletes.

Hockey players from New Richmond, River Falls, Hudson, Somerset and Baldwin-Woodville came together to form the U14 Baldwin Blackcats to compete for a USA Tier II national championship. During the high school season, the players were on various local WIAA girls hockey teams, such as Western Wisconsin Stars and St. Croix Valley Fusion. The Hudson players were the only ones that didn’t play in a co-op during the year.

The team completed an undefeated season before going into the Tier II USA hockey tournament in Troy, Mich., where the Blackcats would face off against teams from all over the country. After knocking off several top-ranked teams on their way to the championship game, the Blackcats suffered a 2-0 loss in the title game to the New England region district champion Shoreline Sharks of Connecticut on April 10.

“Even though we finished just shy of our goal of a national title, I couldn’t be prouder of the way these girls played throughout the national tournament,” head coach Mike DeLong said in a news release. “Ending the year as the second-best team in the nation at their age group with a silver medal is a huge accomplishment for these girls.”

DeLong, who is from Woodville, and Tony Erickson, who is from New Richmond, have coached most of the players since they were in youth hockey.

“We thought we had a good group of girls that could compete nationally, so that was our main motivation,” DeLong said. “I thought they had the talent level and skill sets, so I went to (the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association) and spoke with those people and I felt like it was a great opportunity for these girls to get a whole different experience with hockey.”

All of the kids were 2002 birth years, so their exposure to hockey varied from player to player; but most had never played in a tournament of this capacity.

“I thought it was cool to play teams from out east, California and Florida,” said Caitlyn Erickson, who played goalie as a freshman for the Western Wisconsin Stars and shared time in net with Sydney Seeley. “It was cool to face other people and other competition. The fact that those teams were so good and we were able to play against them and beat them was really fun.”

Though there were admittedly some nerves playing in the tournament, they wore off quickly once the games got started. The Blackcats earned a 5-1 win over the Bay State Breakers from Massachusetts in their first game of the tournament.

Hudson freshman Quinn Winkoski said she was confident the team would be able to compete at this tournament and once the first game got underway her beliefs in her team were confirmed.

“It really didn’t surprise me. I knew after we played in the first game with the pace that we had, I knew we could go far,” said Winkoski, the team’s leading scorer with two goals and five assists. “Going into games, there are always nerves and a pit in my stomach, no matter what game it is.”

Amber DeLong, who played for the St. Croix Valley Fusion, said she scored her “coolest goal ever” in the second game of the tournament against Princeton Tiger Lilies from New Jersey. The goal beat the goalie top shelf on the blocker side after her sister, Abbie DeLong, tied up her opposing centerman.

“It was really exciting,” said Amber DeLong, who had one goal and five assists.

The Blackcats went on to earn a 5-1 win in that game, too.

DeLong said that the nerves didn’t really hit her until the championship game. Before the game, most of the players had an increased level of nerves.

“We did a breathing exercise before the game to calm ourselves down,” DeLong said. “Our coach, Tony Erickson, told us to breathe in through our nose and exhale and we did it like three times.”

In the quarterfinals, the Blackcats played against the No. 1-ranked Monroe County Edge from New York. The Blackcats earned a 5-2 victory.

Mike DeLong said the Edge was “as good as advertised.”

Assistant coach Tony Erickson said it was experiences like this that will benefit the players in their careers.

“The competition was great competition,” Erickson said. “It should benefit the girls playing at that level and that exposure to see that. They’ll come home with a lot of confidence to take back to their high school seasons.”

Playing against teams from all over the state, the Blackcats noticed some differences in the style of play of each team.

“(This experience) gave me a new respect for the game,” Winkoski said. “I think it really built me as a player. There was some adversity, some penalties, and some hard times. As a team we got through them and I want to bring that back to my high school team.

The overall performance was something that Winkoski said the team would remember forever and always be really proud of.

“We just had a few girls from some small towns, so we were underdogs,” Winkoski said. “Playing with and beating the teams that we did was really cool.”