By Marty Farmer
Losing in the semifinals of the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois girls state playoffs last year, the Fenwick hockey team approached this season with a sense of unfinished business.
The Friars capped off their dream season with a 3-2 win over defending state champion New Trier 3-2 in the state final at the United Center on March 22.
Fenwick (24-1-5) earned its first state title in program history by scoring three unanswered goals against New Trier. After the Trevians took a 2-0 lead about 10 minutes into the first period, senior forward Erin Proctor scored the Friars' first goal to make the score 2-1 late in the first.
Then Ellie Kaiser took over. The high-scoring junior tied the game at 2-all on a penalty shot in the second period. Kaiser, who missed a costly penalty shot against Loyola during the regular season, cashed in her second and more meaningful opportunity.
With momentum clearly on their side, the Friars took the lead for good in the third period when Kaiser scored again on an assist from Proctor.
"Winning state feels amazing. There's nothing like it," Kaiser said. "Our fans and the Blackhawks made it an unbelievable experience that I don't think any of us will forget. It is truly one for the books."
Teammate Emily Franciszkowicz added: "Winning the state championship is what I have been dreaming about the last four years. I am filled with joy being able to accomplish this with such a skilled team. It was the perfect way to end our phenomenal season."
Excellent defense and solid net play from senior goalie Lena Flores also contributed to the tide turning in Fenwick's favor against New Trier late in the first period through the rest of the game.
The victory was particularly sweet considering the opponent. While New Trier is regarded as the standard in Illinois girls high school hockey, the Friars took exception to the Trevians' bravado before the championship game, according to Franciszkowicz.
"After we beat them in our league championship game (March 18), several of their girls acted disrespectfully and said they 'threw the game,'" Franciszkowicz said. "They came into the state final overconfident, wearing T-shirts that said '2-peat.' They truly believed they had already won the game before it started, and that's what gave us the edge over them.
"We walked into the United Center focused and ready to represent. New Trier won state last year, but as much as they wanted a '2-peat,' we wanted to win a hundred times more. They put up a hard fight, but with our grit and grind we were able to beat them."
Fenwick also won the season series 3-1-1 against the Trevians.
"I also want to point out that our team had way more fans than New Trier," senior defenseman Sarah Steadman said. "I am a little biased to the large show of support from Trinity, but there were so many fans from Fenwick who came decked out in white, to support their school. You can't diminish the importance of fan support."
In addition to winning state, the Friars notched the Metro League title.
In terms of the entire season, the Friars excelled with a litany of talented players who all bought into the team's selfless culture.
Talent plus teamwork = title
Senior forwards Kelly Millins, Cecilia Jenkins, Katie Gobber, Steadman, Kaiser, Proctor, Franciszkowicz, and senior defenseman Caroline Jenkins, plus Flores were selected as all-state players. Seven of them will play college hockey next season.
"On the surface, we have a very talented group of players and a pretty deep bench," Steadman said. "Our team is about more than just talent. We are a very close-knit group that gets along really well. You have to play a team-first game to be successful."
The team's chemistry is unique, considering the roster includes players from five high schools: Fenwick, OPRF, Trinity, Guerin and York. Three of the team's captains are local. River Forest residents Proctor and Steadman attend OPRF and Trinity, respectively, while Franciszkowicz is an Oak Parker who goes to Fenwick. Caroline Jenkins is the Friars' fourth captain.
"There's honestly no challenge to having players from multiple high schools," Proctor said earlier this season. "I feel the same amount of loyalty to my Fenwick teammates as I do my OPRF friends. It's a little annoying not being able to wear my hockey jersey or Fenwick apparel to school since we are rivals, but I'm still proud to be part of the Fenwick hockey team nonetheless."
The Friars also have enviable balance. No team in the state can match the team's impressive combination of offense, defense and goaltending.
Offensively, Kaiser (43 goals, 15 assists) and Proctor (34 goals, 24 assists) both finished with a team-high 58 points, while Millins (19 goals, 35 assists) and Cecilia Jenkins (19 goals, 18 assists) also put up big numbers.
Steadman and Caroline Jenkins anchored the defense.
In goal, Flores had another stellar season. The Chicago Blackhawk Alumni All-Star team member had 473 saves on 509 shots on goal (93%) and allowed only 36 goals over 30 games for a 1.2 goals allowed average.
"Lena is an amazing goalie," Steadman said. "She has held us in so many games. She is the rock on which our team stands. I'd put her up against any other goalie in the league and they won't stand a chance."
With the exception of Kaiser, the Friars will lose all of their notable contributors to graduation. However, a winning tradition has been firmly established and several promising underclassmen are poised to step in as replacements.
Fenwick also benefits from having one of the best coaching staffs in the state, led by head coach Mason Strom.
"Having Mason as a steady presence in the program has really helped," Steadman said. "He is a great coach and a standout guy who cares so much about our team. His enthusiasm and positive approach have not only made Fenwick a welcoming environment that girls want to be a part of, but also a strong hockey team."