by Anthony Harrison
Three Triad women fly up to Blaine, Minn. this week to battle for the USA Hockey Women’s National Championship.
The Carolina Aces, a B Division club based in Raleigh, took the southeast district title with a 21-11-1 record. They’ll face the Nutcrackers, Madison Meteorites and Anaheim Lady Ducks in the tournament before receiving a seed in the semifinals.
“The season went really good once we found the consistency in our core group,” defender Sydney Borden said.
That consistency arrived thanks to Borden, fellow defender Nikole Calvillo and right wing Leah Adams. All three women live in Greensboro.
“One of our strongest assets of the team is our defense,” head coach Tracy Neumann said. “Two of those three players — Sydney and Niki — are defensemen, so they’re half of our defense.”
Neumann likened the diminutive Adams — “the heart and soul of the team” — to notoriously competitive NHL right wing Pat Verbeek, nicknamed the “Little Ball of Hate.”
“She gets under the other teams’ skins,” Neumann laughed. “She’s always runnin’ around, and she’s not afraid to do the dirty work.”
Neumann, a Texas native, began his tenure with the Aces in 2012, then a C Division team known as the Tri-City Selects.
“We were dominating teams at the C level, and it wasn’t competitive,” Neumann said. “It wasn’t any fun to beat someone by six or seven goals.”
In C Division hockey, rules limit clubs’ rosters to contain at most four players with collegiate experience; in B Division, teams may enlist as many former college players as they wish.
After the Aces entered B Division play for the 2014-15 season, they competed in the nationals, advancing to the quarterfinals.
“[The transition] was so much smoother than we were intending it to be or ever thought it could be,” Borden said. “We had absolutely no idea that, in our first two years as a B team, we would kick it to the national tournament, but it was nice to be surprised.”
While any outsider would laud this achievement, Neumann believes the club lacked the roster depth to compete for the title. In the off-season, the Aces added three ringers to the roster, and they began their ascent to contender status.
“When we have our full roster, we are above and beyond a B team,” Borden boasted.
The Aces logged quality victories over club teams representing Liberty University and the University of Delaware; the latter won a national championship in 2015.
This season was not without its tough moments, though. At a tournament in Cleveland against Michigan-based club Honeybaked, a 2-0 loss threw the Aces into a dogfight.
“There was an all-out ice brawl at the end of the game,” Borden recalled. “Two of our players got injured; four people got ejected. We wound up foregoing playing in the championship game of that tournament because we refused to play [Honeybaked] again.”
Both Borden and Neumann believed the team’s turning point came in December, when they traveled to Philly for a round-robin tournament against their northeastern rivals, the Rochester Edge and Philadelphia Freeze.
“We had a moment where we all realized what we were going forward for, what we needed to do to get better consistently,” Borden said. “It went from zero-to-60 real quick.”
When the Aces competed in their next tourney at Raleigh’s Gamer Ice House, they lit up the Freeze.
“The scores were so astronomical,” Borden said. “Every single player was there, playing the way they wanted to — the way they knew they could — but fully beyond everyone’s potential. We saw the competition in front of us and destroyed it.”
More spoils from that weekend: The Aces also stunned a local men’s team in a close match decided by shootout.
“[That game] forced us to move the puck a lot quicker,” Neumann said. “It forced us to really pick up our game and rely on each of the other players on the ice as opposed to having one or two people try to control the game.”
Even though they’re soaring with healthy momentum, cultivation of the chemistry and consistency Borden relishes proves difficult for the Aces.
The women’s educations and careers make practices exceedingly rare — the team might meet twice a year — and on game days and tournament weekends, the bench fluctuates with player availability.
“We struggle a lot when we only go to tournaments with, like, 10 girls instead of 16,” Borden said.
Topping it all, between travel expenses and fees for ice time, the women spend roughly $2,000 each to play a season — a significant sacrifice considering players’ limited income and lack of team sponsorships.
But most try their best to get on the ice whenever possible — for love of the game; for camaraderie.
“It just feels like a little family,” Borden said. “I get really excited to play hockey with these girls. It doesn’t feel like something I’m paying money to do; I get to go and hang out with some of the greatest friends I’ve ever had and help make a difference in a very positive, warming environment.”
“The bond between these women is much better than any team I’ve coached,” Neumann said. “They love each other, respect each other, and they’re not afraid to go to war for each other.”
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