Lightning strike for provincial championship
The Langley Lightning were likely running on fumes by the time the championship game rolled around.
The midget girls' hockey team was playing their sixth game in four days. And while all teams faced that tough task, the Lightning had just 10 players and one goalie at their disposable.
But that could not slow the squad down, as they edged Richmond 3-2 in the gold-medal match at the provincial championships held in Windermere Valley this past week.
With the score tied at two in the second period, Sara Boehringer, one of the leading scorers all season, struck for the game winner.
Keara Graham had opened the scoring 34 seconds in, and Laura McPhedran had Langley's second goal.
"The girls were pretty gassed," admitted coach Vince Nelles. "Going from sea level to 2,600 feet above really took its toll.
"We felt sluggish."
But the Lightning overcame those obstacles to lay claim to the provincial banner for the Langley Girls Ice Hockey Association.
"To win was just incredible," Nelles said.
"I don't think there was a girl who wasn't crying; just a huge embrace and a hug," he said. "I have never been squeezed and crushed by 15 to 17 year-old girls so hard."
While most of the competition had a full bench to work with, Langley had just nine skaters and one goalie for the first game and their tenth player finally made it to the tournament during the second period of the first game after some travel headaches.
They were also out a back-up goaltender after she broke her collarbone in practice two days prior to the tournament.
With just six forwards and four defencemen, the players would be back on the ice every second shift.
"(Other teams) didn't think it was possible for us to last," Nelles admitted.
Even before the season began, the Lightning faced adversity.
A couple of players quit the team because they felt the Lightning were not going to win, Nelles said. And throughout the season, the team suffered a couple of season-ending injuries, depleting their roster.
But the coach said, despite an up and down season which saw them place fifth in league standings, he knew the Lightning were capable of going all the way.
It wasn't always easy — "they made mistakes, but they didn't repeat them, they turned those mistakes into lessons" — but they team displayed great hockey smarts.
"That is what we were trying to do, if we can't outwork them in some areas, let's outsmart them," he said.
They opened the tournament with a 2-2 tie against Cranbrook, before defeating Kamloops 3-1.
Playing two games on the same day, the Lightning responded with a 3-1 win over Nanaimo and then a 5-0 victory over the host Windermere Valley squad.
That latter win was huge as the winner would have booked a spot in the championship final against Richmond.
Langley and Richmond still had a round-robin game to play on the tournament's final morning, but with both teams knowing they would see each other that night with the gold medal on the line, it was a fairly lackluster contest with Richmond prevailing 3-2.
The rematch, with the championship on the line, had the same score, but this time in Langley's favour.
The team received contributions from throughout the line-up on their march to the championship.
With back-up goaltender Brianna Tham out after suffering a broken collarbone two days before provincials, Kassandra Johnson was more than up to the challenge.
"She seemed to get stronger every game," Nelles said. "She just handled the pressure so well."
The defensive corps of Samantha Rogers, Amber Gudmundson, Christina Mavritsakis and Laura McPhedran got stronger as the tournament went on.
"In the beginning of the tournament, they rushed our hurried their decisions," he said. "But as the tournament went on, they made better and better decisions and didn't panic."
The coach's daughter, Alyssa Nelles, led by example as one of the team's leaders.
"If there was a shot that had to be blocked, or something needed to get done, she either did it, or made sure it got done," he said, adding his daughter had eight or nine fresh bruises from sacrificing her body.
The coach was also impressed by the play of undersized but speedy winger Samantha Schwartz, who was relentless on the forecheck, using her speed to generate pressure and turnovers.
"She had a tremendous amount of energy and great speed. She seemed to gain confidence the tougher the games got," he said.
The Lightning also got great contributions from Tessa Ratzlaff and Chelsea Wilson, a pair of bantam-aged players who chose to play a level up rather than go to Abbotsford since Langley did not have enough numbers to field a rep bantam squad.
Kaitlan McClurg, who has been out the majority of the season with a concussion, made the trip to provincials, helping out as a statistician.
Karly Knudsen and Rae-Ann McCarthy did not make the trip.