14Us & 19Us capture gold; 16Us bring back bronze medal
By Ross Forman – The Chicago Mission 19U girls team owes a slapshot of gratitude to the Mission 14U girls’ team for their Tier 1 National Championship, captured earlier this month in West Chester, Pa.
Not just the expected other way around – the 19s helping the younger skaters.
Let’s jump back to Monday, May 3, bright and early at rink 1 of the Ice Line Quad Rinks. The Mission 14Us took the ice against the Minnesota Green Giants, with the Chicagoans seeking the seeking the Mission’s first-ever 14U National Championship.
After two scoreless periods, Minnesota struck, grabbing a 1-0 lead 8:12 into the third period. The Mission answered about 4 minutes later with a Ella Pukala power-play goal, assisted by Nicole Gorbatenko and Lily Babnik.
They were tied after regulation-time, but that ended quickly as Rachel Gorbatenko scored less than a minute into overtime, assisted by her sister, Nicole, and Pukala.
The Mission went wild on the ice.
The Mission also went wild in the stands. The 14U parents and a slew of siblings and family members were overwhelmed with emotion from the 2-1 victory. So too was the Mission 16U team and the Mission 19U team. And all their parents.
It truly was a sea of (neon) green in the stands, about 300-plus, all supporting the 14Us.
“I actually think (the 14s victory) motivated the 19s. It was like, ‘Now it’s our turn. Our 14s did it, now it’s our time,’” to win a National Championship, said Mission 19U head coach Erin Rourke-Smith. “To deny the 19s the opportunity to watch the 14s win would not have been fair. For the 19s to be part of the 14s victory is a memory that both teams will have forever.”
The 19Us had a National Championship game set to start at 11:15 a.m., against RYA at Selects Academy, a New York-based team. This was a different pre-game preparation for the Mission in a season filled with different, well, almost everything this season was different.
Sure, Rourke-Smith pulled the 19s out of the rink about an hour before the game was set to start, as was customary this season; They talked X’s and O’s and more for about 10 to 15 minutes.
All the 19s were back in the rink for the third period of the 14s game – and the 19s were cheering for every pass, shot and save. So too were the Mission 16Us, who finished as the bronze medal winner in the National Championship tournament.
“I’m watching the 19Us watch the 14Us and I’m wondering, are they ready to play their own game? But they so wanted the 14s to win,” Rourke-Smith said.
Some of the 19s even had on-ice pictures taken with the 14s after that first national championship victory.
“The (14U) girls definitely fed off the energy,” from the other teams in the stands and the mass collection of parents and siblings,” said Joe Porcaro, head coach of the Mission 14Us. “I know the players went out there and worked harder seeing all of the support they had in the stands.”
Rachel Gorbatenko, one of the 14U team’s top-scoring defenseman, started OT at forward – a move designed by Porcaro. Her sister played the other wing.
“I just figured, let’s strike early, see what happens … It worked,” said Porcaro. “I made the call quickly, as we were getting ready for the first (overtime) shift,” to move Rachel to a wing to start OT. “She’s a very talented hockey player who will go far in the sport.”
The Gorbatenko Sisters
Rachel’s glory was celebrated throughout the Mission family.
“Two teams winning gold, one winning bronze … that’s a pretty good statement that what we’re doing is right,” said Porcaro, who has been the Mission’s 14U girls head coach for four seasons.
The 14Us celebrated immediately, naturally, but not right away with their goalie, Heather Wolff. But her pre-celebration story is, er, was a moment no one will forget – and one everyone should remember.
Wolff made her way down the ice. Her teammates were overflowing with joy, elated inches away from the goal where they had just scored. Dejected Minnesota goalie Layla Hemp sat in the sea of green.
Wolff immediately knelt, put her hand on the back of Hemp to console her.
“The humility and pride I felt, in that moment, for what Heather did, the compassion she showed … it was a moment to be proud of,” Rourke-Smith said. “We want our kids to win and be successful; we also want our kids to be good people.
“That moment Heather spent with the other goalie, that minute or two, that image is one that will always stick with me. It was something incredibly special.”
Kelly Gorbatenko opened the scoring for the 19Us, assisted by Callista Chong.
RYA answered about 6 minutes later, leaving about half of the third period still left to be played.
Veronica Bac ultimately scored the game-winning goal for the Mission, assisted by Chong and Ella Huber.
Gorbatenko added 2 late tallies as the Mission sealed the 4-1 title.
“It’s been an unreal season, a surreal season. To finish this way … I’m not sure it’s hit all of us yet, to be honest with you,” Rourke-Smith said. “We knew we had kids who could compete nationally, at all levels.
“The Mission girls’ program is so unique in that each team supports the others. There’s never just, the 14Us are playing a game. (Instead), it’s the 14Us are playing, and the 16Us and the 19Us are watching and cheering.
“That’s Mission pride. It’s a sisterhood that’s been created; Tony Cachey started it; we’re now just carrying it on.”
Rourke-Smith said her phone was filled with congratulatory messages after the national championship victories, many coming from Mission alum.
The players also endured a slew of text and voice-mail messages.
In fact, it was some of the 19s and 16s texting the 14s, and the 14s and 16s texting the 19Us. They also were texting support for the dejected 16s.
“From a club perspective, it was awesome. You can’t write it up any better,” Rourke-Smith said. “I still remember standing there, watching the 14Us celebrate on the ice. The second they got the gold plate (championship plaque) handed to them, the first thing they did was, they skated towards the stands where the parents and other players were. They shared that moment with them.
“The 20 players won it, but everyone (within the Mission) felt it.”
Paige Taborski had 24 saves in goal for the victorious 19Us, which played the finals with 10 forwards and 5 defensemen due to injuries.
“We were a shorter bench then we were used to being,” Rourke-Smith said. “I think the key was, the mental side,” of the game.
The 19Us certainly had a no-surrender approach throughout the tournament. They were, for instance, down 2-0 after 2 periods against Detroit Belle Tire in the semifinal. They answered with 3 third-period goals to win 3-2.
Winning is, well, just what this Mission 19U team does. After all, eight members are now back-to-back National Champions, and five of the players have now won three in a row. “They know what it takes to win,” Rourke-Smith said.
Even if they did not have set lines for the finals, which they didn’t. The 19U coaches were simply calling out three players to take the next shift.
“It’s been special,” Rourke-Smith said. “I’ve always said, ‘I hope these kids are learning life lessons through the sport of hockey.’
“Sure, they will get some medals, some plaques, some banners, some special t-shirts, etc., but the memories will always be there. And looking back at this year’s National Championships, these kids made memories that they will never forget. They may not remember the score of games, who scored, or who did not score, but they will remember the experience.
“To me, that’s the trophy.
“These kids, the kids from all of our teams, now have a bond and will be friends for life – whether they were on the ice or in the stands.”