A year ago this time, the question in Wyoming U19 girls hockey was, “Who is going to stop Park County?”
The answer was Jackson.
This year the question is, “Who is going to stop Jackson?”
Ask the defending champs, they’ll say no one.
The Moose have rolled through the season, well ahead of all teams in the Wyoming Amateur Hockey League with wins over every team they’ve played as the state tournament gets underway this weekend in Pinedale. Jackson’s two losses this season, one to Gillette and one to Pinedale, came only when the team’s starting goalie was out of the lineup.
“Yeah, not being cocky,” first-year head coach TJ Thomas said, “but I knew we were going to be good.”
Sally Sweeney is the team’s starting goalie, and she has been just about flawless. The Utahn goaltender joined the team a year ago for the state tournament, which Jackson went on to win with a 5-0 title game victory over defending champions Park County. This year Sweeney has won every game she’s started, and her backups have proved capable as well. That includes 10-year-old Sarah Cheney, who is 3-1 this season tending goal at the varsity level.
Offensively, the league leaders table is peppered with Jackson names. Gabby Batchen, a sophomore, leads the league with 57 points and has 37 goals on the season. Wings Katie Yarrow and August Otto are right there, too, with Yarrow second in points and leading the league in assists. Otto ranks sixth in points this year.
Those three spearhead the offensive output for Jackson, but Batchen said that across all lines this squad is simply on a different level than in years past.
“One thing I really like about this year is everyone has opportunities,” Batchen said. “My whole line and the other lines are really crushing and dominating, so it’s really leveled out and everyone is doing well.”
Jackson is 16-2 on the season, while Miles City (Montana) is 13-5-2 and Park County is 12-5-3. There’s Gillette and Pinedale as well, the two teams that were able to notch victories over Jackson this year.
Still, there is firmly one team to beat this season, and it’s Jackson. A stark departure from the underdog role the Moose played in 2020.
“We have a target on our backs, and everyone is competing for the trophy and state title,” Batchen said. “Our mindset is still the same: We want to win.”
It could be that way for awhile. Jackson has just one senior on the team, captain Valerie Stevenson, and Yarrow is the squad’s lone junior. That means the bulk of the lineup is sophomores and younger.
Thomas was an assistant with the team last year, taking over for Carl Hee, who left the program before this season. Thomas has been around this program for a long time, and he’s willing to acknowledge the difference between the underdog and top dog role. Still, he doesn’t see any letup from his side, forever getting after it in practice and showing up on game day.
Take the final weekend of the regular season for example. The No. 1 seed was locked up, and Jackson was without Sweeney. The Moose downed Sheridan in back-to-back games, 5-3 and 7-0. Jackson started its youngest goalie in Cheney, but the defense made sure she wouldn’t be tried too much. Sheridan got only a combined 20 shots on goal between the two games.
“Every time I think about state next week I get butterflies because our girls have to show up to do well,” Thomas said. “And when it comes down to the hardware, they’ll show up.”
Jackson will continue to be without sophomore Jordan Davis, who has been a part of the varsity program since she was 11. In early January, Thomas watched Davis hold her back as her shift ended, skate off the ice and head to the locker room. When he reached her at the end of the first period, she told him she couldn’t feel her legs.
That day led to Davis spending the past five weeks at the Denver Children’s Hospital, where her dad Trey Davis said she’s been diagnosed with functional neurological disorder, a rare condition in which there is a problem with the functioning of the nervous system and how the brain and body sends and/or receives signals. Davis and her family just returned to Jackson this week, where her recovery continues.
While Jackson hasn’t really needed a rallying point this season with all the wins piling up, the absence of Davis has become one. Batchen said the team has been in constant contact with Davis as the season has worn on, and the squad wears “12 strong” shirts in honor of Davis (her hockey number), and hangs her jersey up behind the bench during their games.
“It’s obviously hard not to have her there,” Batchen said. “Seeing what happened [to her] makes us want it more because we want to win states for Jordan. We want to make Jordan proud.”
While Davis’ stick on the ice will continue to be sorely missed, her presence won’t. The plan is to have Davis with her team at the state tournament this weekend in Pinedale, where the squad hopes to lift yet another championship trophy.