Even though the 2020-21 Minnesota high school hockey season ended on Saturday, April 3, two area players competed for a national championship at the high school level.
Elk River senior goaltender Ashley Hess and Rogers senior defender Leah Hatcher played for Premier Prep Forest, a team made up of high school hockey players from Minnesota as it competed in the 2021 USA Hockey High School Girls National Championship.
With limited amounts of practice and a team made up of players who didn’t play with each other, Premier Prep Forest found a way to win the 2021 Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Girls National Championship.
Premier Prep Forest defeated the Wisconsin Bearcats 6-2 in the national championship game on Monday, April 19, at Ralston Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.
Premier Prep Forest head coach Kelly Crandall, who is head coach of the Maple Grove varsity girls hockey team, said it was a huge accomplishment for Premier Prep Forest to win the Chipotle-USA Hockey High School Girls National Championship.
Wisconsin drew first blood at 13:12 of the first period when Jenna Bergmanis scored a power-play goal. The Elks responded at 15:25 of the first period when Lola Troyak scored an even-strength goal. After Ellie Schmid scored at 16:09 of the first to make it 2-1 Premier Prep Forest, the Minnesotans didn’t look back.
Forward Katherine Katzmarek scored twice, once in the second and once in the third, boosting Premier Prep Forest’s offense. Hatcher scored the game’s final goal at 14:50 of the third period.
Crandall said Hatcher is a solid defender with offensive upside.
“She can move the puck,” she said. “She can rush the puck. She sees the ice very well. She did a great job controlling our netfront area as well as making good decisions in the offensive zone on when to step up and keep the puck in and when we needed to back out if there wasn’t a third forward high. [I’m] impressed with Leah’s game. She’s a competitor and a good asset for the team.”
Hess stopped 13 of 15 Wisconsin shots. Crandall said Hess was incredible throughout the entire tournament.
“She did a great job controlling rebounds and getting the puck covered in front of the net and stands out as a leader on the team with her teammates as well,” Crandall said. “She communicates, helps out in front of the net. Her teammates know what’s needed. She’s a strong leader in the locker room as well talking about plays, what’s working, strategy and is well-liked by her teammates as well.”
Premier Prep Forest went 3-0-0 in pool play in the American Division, earning wins over the Blackcats, the HPHL Polar Bears, and the Wyoming Girls HS team. In the semifinal, the first-seeded Minnesotans defeated the fourth-seeded Anchorage 9-1 on Sunday, April 18, before beating the Bearcats in the championship game.
Hess said it felt great to win knowing that all of her hard work has paid off.
“I feel like it all wasn’t for nothing to get second in the championship,” Hess said. “We actually won it and got to take something big home.”
Premier Prep Forest associate head coach Claire Goldsmith, who is co-head coach of the Mound-Westonka girls hockey team, said that both Hatcher and Hess led quietly.
“Ashley did a nice job of working with the other goaltenders, since we had two of them and was supportive of her and the rest of the team,” Goldsmith said. “Leah does a nice job of leading by example. I wouldn’t say that they are overly vocal or at least the places that I saw them, they weren’t. Leah can be loud, but it’s not an obnoxious loud. It’s a good loud. It’s a good quality that she has in that sense. Everybody played well together despite not having seen each other in a couple of months.”
The Elks and Royals played each other three times during the 2020-21 season, with Rogers winning two of three against Elk River. However, Hatcher said she got along well with Hess and didn’t think of the rivalry while the two were teammates on Premier Forest Prep.
“I never had a rivalry with anybody from Elk River,” Hatcher said. “I’ve had some friends throughout the years play for Elk River now. When we saw that we were going to be playing together, I thought, ‘This is going to be awesome— a great way to connect with her and become closer friends. It made us closer connecting through the team and through winning. It was awesome to get closer with her.”
Next fall, Crandall, Goldsmith, Hatcher and Hess will head their separate ways as Elk River, Maple Grove, Mound-Westonka and Rogers compete for section championships and state championships. Crandall said both Hatcher and Hess are great leaders in the Northwest Suburban Conference.
“It was fun to be on the other side of it being able to coach them and not play against them,” she said. “I enjoyed that and having that time to get to know them and work on strategies and plays, being able to have that coaching aspect getting to know the kids. Both are extremely talented, very well-educated and great team players. It’s fun to be on the ice with people who are so passionate about the game and how they can improve and how they can be better on and off the ice.”