By Ross Forman
One shift from the memorable 2018-2019 Fenwick girls’ hockey season stands out to head coach Mason Strom: the last one.
“We had an empty-net goal waived off that would have sealed the game,” he said. “There was less than a minute remaining in the game. New Trier had called a timeout, and that timeout gave us a moment to settle down and focus on what was standing between us and victory.
“That last shift could not have been executed better by the team. In hindsight, the empty-net goal being waived allowed the game to have a very exciting and memorable ending. New Trier was the best offensive team last season and I like to think that we were the best defensive team, so the way the game ended, in my opinion, was perfect and a memory that will always stick with me.”
Fenwick won, 3-2, for the school’s first-ever Illinois Girls High School Hockey State Championship. Fenwick overcame a 2-0 deficit for the title.
“I definitely have slightly different feelings about winning than the rest of the team,” Strom said. “Honestly, I’m super competitive, but don’t value winning above all else. I feel being a good person and respecting the game and playing it the right way is more important, and usually leads to positive outcomes. The best way I can describe the emotions of winning last season is this: On the one hand, it was relief. This group had been through so much in four years and had gotten so close the year before, I wanted to see them succeed so bad that watching them reach the top of the hill made me feel so relieved, after the successful season we had that we were able to go out on a high note.
“On the other hand, (it was) straight up pride, on multiple fronts. Going to the state title game brought up the memory of the last time Fenwick made it to the final and lost. Two of the assistant coaches (Jesse Cwik and Rebecca Shinsako) this year were on that team that played at the United Center six years ago and it was very powerful to watch them reflect on their experiences and pass on their wisdom to this team. I think that was the intangible that can’t necessarily be measured, but it was invaluable to have their voices in the locker room and on the bench.”
Strom, 32, lives in River Forest and is a broadcasting teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge. He has been coaching for 15 years, 14 of which have been in the high school ranks. This fall will be his ninth on the Fenwick bench. Strom also has coached OPRF Boys JV for 2 years, varsity for 3 years. His Fenwick girls’ teams have made 2 state finals appearances, won a Metro Girls championship, and more.
Strom also is entering his second season coaching the Robert Morris University women’s team and is in his 11th season as an on-ice official.
“Last season was very memorable,” he said. “It saw the complete journey of 9 seniors who were on a losing team their freshman year and developed into champions. We had a very talented group of young women who set a goal of playing together as a team and having fun, and we happened to win some games along the way. It was truly a lot of fun to coach them and watch them play. It really could not have happened to a better group and I felt very privileged to coach them.
“The season before last, we came close to competing for a state title and lost in overtime of the league championship; that experience definitely drove a hunger throughout the team during (this past) season. I always like to focus on the life lessons that can be learned from the game of hockey, and I think last season, the team learned just how hard it is to win a title – the time, effort, sacrifice, and the sheer difficulty in being the last team standing at the end of the season.”
The night of the state championship last March, the team also had an end-of-the-year celebration.
“We planned it ahead of time because win or lose (the championship game), the season was worth celebrating,” Strom said. “The party had a very interesting vibe; everyone seemed just as happy that the season was finally over as they were happy that we had won. So many of the players on the team play spring sports and they had missed a substantial portion of the beginning of the spring season because of our deep run into the playoffs.”
About six weeks after the season ended, they had a team banquet to celebrate the accomplishments of the season. “It was nice to get together and see everyone, (but) it also was very bittersweet to see the seniors move on. But definitely more sweet than bitter. “
One of the player’s made a video montage of the season for the banquet.
The team also got together a few times over the summer to skate.
Fenwick threw the team a pep rally and Fenwick Principal Peter Groom had contacted the principals from the co-op team’s other schools (OPRF, Trinity, Guerin, York) and had all the players from the team excused from class to attend, too. “Everyone received an incredibly warm welcome from the Fenwick student body,” Strom said.
Now how will the team repeat?
“Repeating would be an incredibly difficult task, as the team found out first-hand just how difficult winning it all actually is,” Strom said. “In order to find success in the coming year, the younger and new members to the team will have to step into some pretty big roles because we graduated so many players and lost a lot of role players.
“The focus from the team coming into the season (has been), knowing we have a lot of new players, to assimilate to the program and high school hockey in general. As of now, that is our main goal and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Strom said winning state definitely created a lasting memory that the players will never forget.
“For the program, winning made current and former players, both female and male, proud to have won the shield,” he said. “For the community, it meant the world to the young female players, learning to skate at Ridgeland Commons, who saw a group of players, many of whom coach these youngsters.”
The 2019-2020 team will be young. Fenwick graduated half of the team and a lot of experience. “There’s going to be a fair amount of pressure on the older players and even the sophomores to both lead the team as well as help the rookies assimilate to the team and to the league,” Strom said. “We still have a lot to figure out, but everyone who is returning is excited to get back on the ice together and excited to compete with all the great talent around the league.”
Fenwick, on paper, will have a solid defense, which will help the changes the team has experienced in the offseason with personnel changes.
Fenwick had 9 players graduate and has 9 returning players.
“We graduated a lot of players, (including) a 3-year starting goalie and 6 of the top 7 scorers on the team,” Strom said. “With all the new players coming in, the hope is that we find good chemistry quickly. We had a clear identity last year that developed early on, so finding our identity this season, with all the new players, is going to be an aspect we focus on.”
Senior Ellie Kaiser (Fenwick) was the team’s leading scorer and finals MVP. Other key players this season will be junior Simone Bednarik (York) and the entire returning group of defensive players: Gianna Stinsa, Fiona Gallagher, Cuora Sullivan, and Elizabeth Mack.
Freshman Brynn West (Fenwick) will step in on defense.
Freshman Alessia DiSilvestro (Fenwick) will step in on offense.
“There are several other new players I am excited to join the team that will look to contribute on the offensive side of the ice,” Strom said.
“I think the experience of the returning players, having been through everything from the past season, know and understand the importance of team unity. Successful relationships off the ice commonly translate into the potential for success on the ice.”
Sophomore Elizabeth Mack (Fenwick) took some huge steps last year in her development and will look to step into a bigger role this year.
Metro Girls gets better every year, Strom said. “The competition is stronger and it’s great to see. I’m looking forward to playing the teams who were competitive last season, but young. I expect them to be improved and the majority of the league to be very formidable competition.”
Talking Fenwick Girls Hockey & More With … Head Coach Mason Strom
Hardest Slapshot: Ellie Kaiser
Most Accurate Shot: Gianna Stinsa
Best on Penalty Shots: Ellie Kaiser
Best Stick-handler: Simone Bednarik
All-time Favorite Blackhawks Player: Bobby Hull
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Will Be: “Anyone but the St. Louis Blues or Nashville Predators.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years, and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.