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Guilford girls prevail in overtime to culminate sensational SCC championship game

By Rick Menning

WEST HAVEN, CT -- For the nearly 500 spectators at the prime-time Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) high school girls' ice hockey playoff finale on Friday, Feb. 25, the environment was as dramatic and exciting as it could possibly get in the sport at any level.

The Stanley Cup (National Hockey League) and Isobel Cup (Premier Hockey Federation) finals likely wouldn't be able to match the unbelievably fantastic and phenomenal action the Guilford and West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy squads displayed for more than two heart-racing hours and nine-plus additional fever-pitched minutes of overtime -- all with a championship hanging in the balance.

Determination, perseverance, focus, athleticism -- that and so much more was all on display amidst a frenzied atmosphere at the Edward L. Bennett Rink in one of southern Connecticut's great venues for high school hockey.

Guilford Grizzlies players begin their celebration after clinching the Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) title with a dramatic goal just over nine minutes into the overtime period. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ward.)

When Grizzlies' sophomore Sofia Cuozzo tipped home an initial shot from junior Kim Evans at the 9:03 mark of the extra period, it catapulted Guilford to a 4-3 victory and brought to a conclusion one of the best hockey games that those who witnessed it in person will remember for a very long time.

"We just stayed loose and talked (in the locker room) about what we needed to do. Our chemistry is amazing so we just had to take a breath and stay in the moment," Cuozzo said after the thrilling finish.

Guilford sophomore Sofia Cuozzo (right) gets off a shot near the crease as West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy's Julianna Montano (No. 44) moves in to defend the play. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ward.)

The decisive overtime followed a wild third period that saw Guilford rally back from a 2-1 deficit to take a 3-2 lead with a pair of goals less than 30 seconds apart, only to have West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy knot the score in the latter stages of regulation.

Shock and awe duo

The most critical stretch in the championship showdown was one that lasted only 27 seconds but produced two goals as the hard-charging Grizzlies showed their quick-strike firepower. After SCC Player of the Year Maddie Epke tied the game at 2-2 with a rocket from the high slot, senior teammate Daniella Vickerman scored in traffic near the crease. It was Vickerman's 101st career point with the Grizzlies.

Epke, whose name was announced for that honor just minutes before she scored the goal, had another reason to celebrate as the equalizer marked her 250th career point.

Those goals, the latter of which came off solid assists from Cuozzo and senior captain Olivia Gill, took place at the 3:32 and 3:59 marks of the third period and dramatically shifted the momentum in the Grizzlies' favor.

Guilford's top line of Epke, Vickerman and Cuozzo were once again a tough trio to play against, but the Westie Sharks did have stretches where they were able to contain them as Ashley Welch, Emilee De Grand and Chase Ireland used effective pokechecking during the scoreless second period.

Meanwhile, Grizzlies' sophomore Ryleigh Gagnon came up with some clutch defensive stops as one of the workhorses in front of goalie Julia McDonald.

For the senior captain, her super effort between the pipes was a milestone achievement as she recorded her 40th career victory.

Suspense builds to OT

The willpower of the Westie Sharks stayed fully intact and senior captain Meghan Dupre assured that the game would go into overtime when she launched a blistering one-timer from inside the left circle that went top shelf to make it 3-3 with just 1:43 to go in the third period.

Grizzlies' junior defenseman Kim Evans (No. 22) rips a shot through traffic from just outside the left circle. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ward.)

That's when the Grizzlies huddled in the locker room and made sure they came out for the OT with the right mindset.

"We were all working so hard, and we knew that if we kept shooting the puck on net that we could get the (winning) goal," said Evans, who provided the game-winning assist. It was Evans who tallied the Grizzlies' first-period goal from the top of the left circle after a perfect cross-ice feed from Epke only six and a half minutes into the game.

Evans, who anchors Guilford's top defensive unit along with Gill, said her team continually kept up the pressure in the offensive zone in overtime and was confident the result would be a good one.

"We've been practicing all season on getting rebounds and tipping in pucks, so it was really important to create that opportunity and Sofia brought it home for us," added Evans, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

The Guilford Grizzlies high school girls' ice hockey team proudly display their medals and banner as the 2021-2022 season Southern Connecticut Conference champions. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ward.)

The Grizzles, who had 44 shots on goal in their semifinal victory over the Amity co-op squad two nights earlier, once again came out with plenty of firepower with 10 shots on West Heven/Sacred Heart Academy goalie Grace Nowak in the first seven minutes. It was on that 10th shot that Evans' liner went over Nowak's shoulder for the 1-0 lead.

Guilford finished with 32 shots on the Westie Sharks' senior netminder, who despite the loss was outstanding throughout the nearly 55 minutes of action. Time and again, she squared up to the shooter and was a fortress in standing up to one challenge after another.

At the opposite end, McDonald was equally stellar and especially in the second and third periods when the Westie Sharks came at her with a 16-shot push. She allowed only the late game-tying goal over that stretch.

Westie Sharks goalie Grace Nowak faces pressure in close as Sofia Cuozzo and Daniella Vickerman move in on the rush -- all while being closely defended by Westie Sharks' players Julianna Montano and Meghan Dupre. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ward.)

While she was stopping 14 of the first 15 shots she faced, Nowak was supported at the other end of the ice by teammates Dupre and junior Anne Plunkett.

Dupre, along with her third-period equalizer, tallied the Westie Sharks' first goal of the game when she scored unassisted from between the circles.

Plunkett put West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy ahead less than three minutes later off an assist from De Grand to make it 2-1.

Although her amazing team of hard-working athletes did not achieve the 'W', there were smiles after the contest as the Westie Sharks' Erin Blake was named SCC Coach of the Year.

Stick with game plan

The Grizzlies, who defeated West Haven/Sacred Heart Academy 7-2 just a week earlier, had a much more difficult time on Friday but kept their poise and did all the things that drove them to be seeded No. 1 in the conference tournament.

Evans noted that the talk between the third period and overtime was really about getting back to the basics that have made the Grizzlies so successful.

"We just decided to really focus on our breakouts, get the rebounds, crash the net and just try to relax and play our game," she said. "We knew we would win if we just did all the little things and finish plays."

Finishing one play in particular at the 9:03 mark of overtime provided a very big thing -- the Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC) crown.

Guilford is back in action on Tuesday afternoon, March 1 when they travel to the Dorothy Hamill Rink to face Greenwich. Puck drop is at 4 p.m.

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