Feb. 13—Maintaining sustained success can be difficult in sports — especially at the high school level, where programs annually lose some of their top talent to matriculation. That hasn't stopped members of the Dimond-West girls high school hockey team in its quest to establish themselves as the best in the state.
On Saturday, they beat Chugiak-Eagle River 2-1 to secure their third straight state championship and cap off a dominant season in which they ran the table in the regular and postseason to finish 13-0.
"We knew that (Chugiak-Eagle River) has got a great team and they gave us three good games prior to today. We knew this was going to be a battle, and they wanted nothing more than to beat us," Dimond-West head coach Brian Gross said. "We came out and played a really good first period and put them on their heels a little bit."
Dimond-West got on the board first with a goal from senior captain Sasha Kleckner at the 15:01 mark in the opening period and tacked on another in the second period when junior Hailey Murray found the back of the net with 8:15 left to play.
[Mission accomplished: West outlasts late rally attempt by Dimond to win Division I boys hockey title]
Even though his team had established a two-goal lead, Gross said the second period was when Chugiak-Eagle River began taking it to them and it carried over into the third when they got on the board with a goal from Alder Niederer at the 8:14 mark.
"That goal they got to make it 2-1 really changed the game and put us on our heels all the way to the finish," he said.
After his team went up 2-0, he knew the next goal would be "huge" in determining the outcome of the game and was hoping they'd extend their lead to 3-0 which is "difficult to come back from," but once their foes scored, he knew it was going to be a "fight to the finish" that would go down to the wire.
"We didn't want to obviously give that goal up but we did and were able to hang on," Gross said.
Emotions were high on the Dimond-West bench during the final period and got even more intense when Chugiak-Eagle River pulled within striking distance of forcing the third straight overtime game of the day.
"I thought I was going to cry," Kleckner said. "I was like 'Oh my gosh, my high school career is almost over' but also they had just scored and I had watched it. I was like 'Oh my gosh, I can not give up another goal' so I was kind of freaking out but I had to stay in the game and lock in really quick."
Since she wasn't on the line shift for the final minutes, all Kleckner could do was watch and cheer on her teammates as they held on and secured the victory.
"It's very rewarding, especially for a third time in a row; that almost never happens," she said. "I think it's a very good experience for our freshmen and underclassmen. Hopefully, our juniors are looking forward to trying to win one next year for a four-peat."
Prior to this season, scoring goals wasn't really Kleckner's forte by her own admission, but for her final goal at the prep level to come in the state title game, which also happened to be on her 18th birthday, it was as good of a storybook ending as she could ask for.
"It's a great way to turn 18 and end my high school hockey career," she said. "It's been a career high for me scoring goals my senior year, and I was really excited to get my last one and kind of sad, but it was fun to do."
Many of the players have been on the same competitive travel teams since they were young. Players said there isn't any animosity toward each other, even when the boys' teams for their respective schools face off for a state championship as they did on Saturday night.
"There's no rivalry between us," Kleckner said. "The boys' thing is the boys' thing. We're girls and we're the girls team ... We're together, we're a team so we don't have that rivalry."
Quality depth has been key to Dimond-West's success during its reign at the top of girls prep hockey the past three years, and it came through clutch at goalie in particular during the state tournament.
With regular starter Zoie Campbell pulling double duty as the starting goalie for the Dimond boys' team that made it to the state finals, it was up to Siena Lardizabel to help the girls co-op bring home another title, and she delivered, making 17 saves on 18 shots.
"She's fantastic and we're very blessed to have several solid goalies for Dimond-West," Gross said. "(She) played awesome. She made some big saves when we needed her to and she kept us in the game."
Kleckner and Campbell along with Lauren Grier are the team's only members that are graduating, and they have a big junior class that will be expected to carry on the tradition of dominance, although the cyclical nature of prep sports causes ebbs and flows when it comes to parity.
"We're hoping we can hang on one more year and keep it going but everyone is gunning for you when you win a couple in a row and we know that and accept the challenge," Gross said.
Challenges and progress of growing girls hockey at the high school level
This year marked the second year of the state tournament being expanded to seven teams after being limited to just the four Anchorage School District co-ops and round-robin format a few years ago.
"It's great to see it expand out into the (Mat-Su) Valley, which is really exciting, because we always want girls hockey to grow," Kleckner said. "It's great to have new competition."
Unlike the boys programs that are funded by the schools and supported by booster clubs, the girls teams have to fundraise all of their own operating costs by selling raffle tickets and other means.
"We have to pay for ice, we have to pay for jerseys. These jerseys are older than me, this gear is older than me, but it's a great thing that (girls high school hockey) still kept going," Kleckner said.
She hopes that girls prep hockey continues to grow and expand across the state and never wants it to "disappear or die out."
"We had seven teams this year and we would really like to have eight for a better bracket, but it's great to expand across the state," Gross said. "We want to have full state participation."
Alaska Girls State Hockey Tournament
Ben Boeke in Anchorage
No. 3 Colony/Palmer 5, No. 6 Kenai Peninsula 0
No. 4 Wasilla/Houston 7, No. 5 South/Bartlett 4
No. 2 Chugiak/Eagle River 12, No. 7 Service/East 3
Dimond/West 7, Houston/Wasilla 4
Chugiak/Eagle River 3, Colony/Palmer 1
Kenai Peninsula 2, Service/East 1
Kenai Peninsula 7, South/Bartlett 6 (OT-Shootout)
3rd Place Game
Colony/Palmer 3, Houston/Wasilla 2 (OT)
Dimond/West 2, Chugiak/Eagle River 1
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Dimond-West player Hailey Murray was a junior and not a sophomore. The story also misidentified a Dimond/West player in a photo as Sasha Kleckner instead of Svea Dorman and also incorrectly reported there were two seniors on the Dimond/West team. There were three.