Belle Tire wins Girls Tier I 16U championship
By Ryan Williamson
At the 2017 Tier I Girls National Championship in Rochester, Mich., the field was littered with teams from the Great Lakes State.
Out of all the Michigan-based teams competing, however, the 16U Detroit Belle Tire did not appear as one of the Michigan teams that could end up on top as national champions.
But despite having to clear some steep hurdles along the way, Belle Tire surprised many and advance to April 10’s final. Detroit capped off its miraculous run by defeating the Pittsburgh Pen Elites 2-0 and winning the Tier I 16U Girls National Championship.
For Belle Tire, just getting through preliminary round play was going to be a big-time challenge. Detroit was in the same pool as the Boston Jr Eagles, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. And with the new tournament format eliminating quarterfinals, the margin of error was thin for any team.
“You couldn’t lose a game. You had to have that back-against-the-wall mentality throughout the entire tournament,” Belle Tire head coach Mike Vigilante said. “Thankfully, this was the most coachable group of girls I’ve ever had. They were willing to take on whatever role was given to them.”
Belle Tire got past the Jr Eagles to win the pool. The team’s 3-0 start included a 2-0 win against the highly-touted Jr Eagles.
After defeating another perennial power, the East Coast Wizards, in the semifinals, Detroit was set to go up against Pittsburgh, who was coming off a 1-0 win against defending champion Shattuck-St. Mary’s and featured strong goaltender Gwyneth Philips.
For more than a period, Philips continued her run of perfection. But in the second, Belle Tire broke through on the power play. Angelina Wiater fired a shot from the point that got through traffic and into the net.
“We knew coming in this goalie was going to be extremely tough,” Vigilante said. “We told them it was so important to get traffic in front and divert (Philips’) eyes away.”
Once Detroit got on the board, the defense and goaltending took it from there. Frankie Sanchez picked up the shutout with 18 saves. Her strong play along with a team effort kept the Pens from getting on the board.
“Frankie gave an exceptional effort today,” Vigilante said. “Our entire team was committed to playing strong defense. We kept them on the perimeter and that slowed them down quite a bit.”
When the final whistle blew, the celebration was on. The raucous and emotional Belle Tire team got to celebrate with their teammates, coaches and large fan contingency that made the short drive to the Onyx Ice Arena.
“It’s pretty awesome when you get the opportunity to play in front of this many fans,” Sanchez said. “This is the biggest tournament we have all year. This just made the feeling that much better.
As a team that has often been in the shadow of Michigan powers Detroit Little Caesars and HoneyBaked Hockey, Vigilante said this win was a breakthrough for the entire program.
“I was going to be proud of our association no matter what happened today,” Vigilante said. “We had such a great group of players and coaches. This tournament really helped put Belle Tire on the map.”