HUDSON — As the clock kept ticking closer and closer to zero, the feeling that Abigail Stow and the rest of the ECA Stars girls hockey program have been craving for the last four years was initially different than one might expect.
“I think it was a little weird,” said Stow, the Stars’ senior captain and Ms. Hockey finalist.
Why would that be?
Well, in the four years Stow has been a part of the program, the team’s never had a strong start against Hudson, its sectional final opponent on Saturday.
None of that past history mattered, though, in a winner-take-all game with the state tournament on the line. And the Stars created a new chapter on Saturday.
They built a first-period lead, fended off an early second-period goal and electrified the road venue with three response tallies in the second before icing it in the third.
The Stars played as complete a game as they’ve ever played in a 6-1 dismantling of top-seeded and top-ranked Hudson to punch the co-op’s first-ever ticket to state.
“We just came out flying,” co-captain Brooklynn Arbs said. “In the locker room, we really set the high expectations to come out and play our first period.”
Stow and fellow scoring machine Ava Kison both netted hat tricks, and freshman Naomi Stow was rock solid in net. The defense also frustrated and outworked Hudson on nearly every loose puck.
It felt as though it were meant to be.
“They played a very smart hockey game today,” said coach Tom Bernhardt, who last coached at state when he took the North boys in 2006. “We knew they had to do that. Everything we asked them to do and then some today, they did.”
Eau Claire Area set the tone early and scored just 5:30 into the contest when Kison netted off a pass from Lauren Carmody. Three minutes, 26 seconds later, Kison hooked up with Stow for a 2-0 lead at the end of one.
The Stars dug themselves three-goal deficits in each of the two meetings with Hudson earlier in the year, splitting those contests. Not on Saturday.
“As soon as it happened, we were just pumped,” Stow said. “We were ready, and we weren’t giving up. We had to win every period, and we came out and did it.”
As good as the opening 17 minutes were — and they included a breakaway save from Naomi Stow — the high-powered Raiders got on the board just 17 seconds into the second period. Lexie Nelson rattled home a power-play goal.
While the energy in the home building at John Gornick Memorial Arena seemed to have shifted, the Stars responded.
Stow batted in a rebound off a Charlotte Akervik shot from the point just 2:16 later, and Kison got a nifty bounce on the power play to make it 4-1 with just 4:37 off the clock in the second.
Kison shot one from the high slot, and it knocked off a Raiders defenseman getting screened out front. The rubber found the net, and the Stars stole the energy right back and for good.
“The momentum, it’s what we’ve been saying the whole playoffs,” Abigail Stow said. “The Stars have never done this. They’ve had their chance and they’ve been to state, but we haven’t. We just wanted it.”
Kison then scored on a double move in front of the net with just 40 seconds left to play in the second period, and the game felt all but over from there.
“We knew that we had to come out in the second period and take that punch right away, but the kids responded fantastically,” Bernhardt said. “In the third period we locked things down and did a wonderful job defensively to preserve that lead.”
Despite being outshot 22-16, the Stars dictated the pace and kept a lot of the shots up high in the zone. They made the Raiders play 200 feet for most of the afternoon.
“In practice we were dumping the puck in and working on that,” Arbs said.
And of course, the freshman netminder was pretty darned good. She made three big saves on the power play early in the third and stopped a shot from point blank in the slot in the second. Naomi Stow, the younger sister of Abigail, got herself squared in the net and owned her crease.
“I grabbed her by the mask after and just said ‘I’m so proud of you,’” an emotional Abigail said afterward. “Straight from the get-go in warmups — I always warm up with her — and I could just tell. Her focus was not like I’ve seen it this season.”
Abigail Stow put a sweet bow on the milestone afternoon with an unassisted goal at 13:03 of the third period.
The Stars had never made it to the sectional final before Saturday. They cleared another hurdle and then some in Hudson.
“I’ll tell ya, that’s a group of kids that in the locker room, on the bus, at practice, during games, they are a very easy group to coach and a very enjoyable group to coach, and I’m very happy they are rewarded with a trip to the state tournament,” Bernhardt said.
The view after climbing over their latest hump is the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, home of the state tournament. The Stars will take on defending state champ Central Wisconsin at 10 a.m. Friday morning.
“It was indescribable,” Stow said of the final horn sounding on Saturday. “It was like ‘We’re going to state.’ Finally, four years later.”
The feeling may still be weird. But the season is very much alive for the Stars.