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Photo by Brad O’Neil

Forest Lake junior defenseman Rachel Golnitz displays the gold medal she won as part of the United States U18 national team, which won the U18 world championship held in Slovakia Dec. 26 through Jan. 2.

During a home girls hockey game against Roseville on Jan. 4, word spread among Forest Lake fans that there was a gold medal in the house. Everyone present certainly knew that there was a gold medalist present – there probably weren’t too many fans in the stands who had not streamed at least some of the recently concluded Women’s U18 World Championship tournament – but there was definitely a palpable excitement over the presence of the medal itself, and more than a few fans (and after the game, players) approached the mother of Forest Lake junior defenseman Rachel Golnitz, in whose safekeeping the medal was entrusted, to get a look at the treasure.

World champion Golnitz herself was busy scoring two goals as part of a 10-1 rout of Roseville, wearing the maroon and gold No. 26 jersey that local fans know her best in, but just a day and a half earlier, she was wearing the red, white and blue No. 7 sweater as a defenseman for the United States U18 national team that conquered rival Canada for a thrilling overtime victory in the championship game of the world tournament, held Dec. 26 through Jan. 2 in Bratislava, Slovakia. The gold medal was presented to her there, and then she and her teammates dispersed to their hometowns across the northern tier of the U.S.

“It’s a huge honor to represent your country and make everyone at home proud,” Golnitz said.

Longtime local star

The current Forest Lake senior class of 2020 has long been tabbed as a group of rare talent, and although Golnitz is a grade below that large contingent, she has often been considered something of an honorary member. She played 10U and 12U hockey locally, helping the 12U Rangers win a state title alongside much of the current varsity senior class. She first appeared for the Ranger varsity as an eighth grader in 2016-17 and has been a stalwart ever since. She began serving as captain last season and continues in that role this year. She also earned All-State notice at the end of the 2018-19 campaign. Outside the school season, she has played for a number of club outfits, most recently the 19U Junior Whitecaps, and she has participated in a USA Hockey camp every year since 2017. She has verbally committed to play Division I college hockey at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, a commitment she can sign and seal officially once she reaches her senior year.

Although she plays on the back line for the Rangers, she is highly active in the offense as well, having a total of 34 varsity goals to her name, including seven so far this season. She has been credited with 56 assists, including 14 this season.

“Rachel is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known, on the ice and off the ice,” Forest Lake head coach Todd Gutterman said. “She’s a well-rounded individual; she’s got talent but she also brings a work ethic like nobody else. It’s awesome for her to see the reward for everything she’s put in.”

Journey to worlds

The USA Hockey brass had a similarly high opinion of Golnitz’s abilities, advancing her through a lengthy tryout process that began last March with section camps, followed by one national camp, then a select national camp in St. Cloud. The top 30 players from that last camp were taken to Lake Placid, New York, for a week of training and tryouts for the U18 USA-Canada Series, a cycle of three games played between the two hockey powers in mid-August.

Having made the cut at every level up to then, Golnitz was informed that she would not be a member of Team USA for the Series.

“It was really disappointing, but I thought it was a great opportunity to grow and prove I belonged,” Golnitz said.

The Canadians took two of three from the Americans at the U18 Series, setting the northerners up as the favorite for the world title. Meanwhile, Golnitz continued to work and play hard, knowing that USA Hockey would continue to evaluate potential talent for the team that would go to worlds. In November, Golnitz received the phone call she had dreamed of: As she put it, “I got a call saying I would be spending Christmas break in Slovakia.”

The final 23-woman squad for worlds, coached by Minnesota, Duluth’s Maura Crowell, included nine Minnesota prep players plus three more who play at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep, where the team functions more like an elite club, eschewing MSHSL play. Notable Minnesotans include first-choice goaltender Skylar Vetter, who guests in net for the Lakeville North boys team, forward Kathryn Davis from defending state champ Edina, another local product in Chisago Lakes forward Danielle Burgen, and forward Peyton Hemp of Andover, Forest Lake’s fierce Section 7AA rival and current No. 1 in the state rankings.

“Peyton and I have played against each other our whole lives,” Golnitz said. “I played on a team with her in the fall in the Elite League and we bonded in Slovakia; it was fun to grow as friends and teammates.”

After flying to Slovakia, team members got to know each other in practice sessions and off-ice activities. Golnitz cited a particular team walk in the small town of Pisaná as a key moment.

“We walked into town and we bonded,” Golnitz said. “That was the moment we went from being a team to being a family.”

Golden girls

Having bonded as a group, the girls of Team USA got down to the task of bringing home a world title. In pool play, the Americans rolled past Finland 4-1 on Dec. 26 and then edged Russia 1-0 on a late goal by Ella Huber of Northfield, Illinois. In the final pool game, though, Canada dealt the Americans a 2-1 defeat that reaffirmed its status as the favorite.

The intensity of the rivalry between the American and Canadian senior teams is well-known, and Golnitz confirms that things are just as intense in the U18 ranks,

“It’s a great rivalry, always physical and intense,” Golnitz said.

The two teams have dominated the annual U18 world tournament since its inception in 2008, having split every gold medal between them. Only once has the other team not finished in the silver position (Sweden, 2018). Canada held the 2019 title and looked to make it two in a row during the playoff rounds.

Two top teams from a lower pool, the Czech Republic and Sweden, entered the quarterfinals, but were summarily dispatched by Finland and Russia, respectively. Canada and the U.S. earned byes to the semifinals, where the U.S. again defeated Russia (3-0) and Canada eliminated Finland (4-1), both on New Year’s Day. On Jan. 2, Russia topped Finland 6-1 for the bronze medal, and then the championship clash began at 8:30 p.m. local time, the middle of the Minnesota afternoon for those streaming at home.

The final match was a roaring affair worthy of its billing. Abbey Murphy (Evergreen Park, Illinois) scored on a first-period power play, but that tally was canceled in the third period by Canada’s Sarah Paul, also on a power play. The score remained tied at the end of regulation, setting up the Americans’ overtime winner, which was scored by Kiara Zanon of Fairport, New York, after 17 minutes of back-and-forth action in the extra frame. Less than three weeks after its players had begun training together, Team USA was on top of the world.

“It was an unbelievable experience to win the gold medal,” Golnitz said. “It was very special to me that we could come together as a team in such a short time and win.”

Golnitz’s final statistical line for the tournament is 2 shots on goal, a +1 goal differential and 2 minutes in the box for a slashing penalty – which came against Canada, so can you really blame her? – and of course, 1 gold medal that everyone in Forest Lake wants to see.

She helped the U.S. extend its gold medal lead in the history of the tournament to 8-5 over Canada, and she gained experience at the world level that she will bring back to Forest Lake as she and her Ranger teammates try to win another Suburban East Conference title and, if it comes to it, knock off national teammate Hemp’s Andover squad in a Section 7AA final.

Between now and then, any team that lines up against Forest Lake will have to game-plan around the fact that there is a world champion in the Rangers’ back line.

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