Wasps claim back-to-back Girls Hockey State Championships

By Ray Couture, Standard Correspondent

Woodstock Union High School girls hockey players, coaches, parents, and fans gathered in a compact room near the Wasps’ locker room on the north end of UVM’s Gutterson Fieldhouse ready to celebrate.

The team had been crowned VPA D-II champions for the second straight year just moments before in an on-ice ceremony following a heartstopping 4-1 victory over the Kingdom Blades, and most of the players were still stuck in their sweaty jerseys and bulky pads, faces reddened from the exertion caused by an end-to-end game that had but a single goal’s difference for the majority of it. 

But that didn’t stop the group from packing into the space like sardines, hugging and laughing and taking in the unbridled joy of becoming back-to-back champions, a first in Vermont D-II girls hockey since Montpelier’s U-32 did it back in 2010 and 2011.

Off to the side of the scrum, Wasps Head Coach Ian Coates discussed his team’s future and commended its steely focus on winning. Coates said when he went into the team’s locker room ahead of the matchup to deliver his pre-game talk, he tried to use the potential of becoming back-to-back champions as a motivating tool, but that it caught the players by surprise.

“I’m like, ‘Listen ladies, back-to-back,’” Coates remembers telling the team. “Then the lightbulb goes off and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

He continued, “The same thing happened when we got the trophy, it hadn’t even dawned on them that we’d gone back-to-back. It’s pretty cool that they just focused on the moment.”

As Coates talked, one happy parent walked past, stopped to shake his hand, and said, “Coach’s tenth year, right? How amazing is that?”

Coates’ ten years at the program’s helm could be considered a slow build into a budding dynasty. The Wasps hadn’t made the D-II playoffs for three years when Coates arrived in 2014 and hadn’t reached the quarterfinals since 2009.

In just the last five seasons, since 2019, the team’s been to three finals, winning two of them. They went 21-1 last season and followed it up with an 19-4 record this year, despite struggling on the defensive side of the ice early on.

The Wasps have entered the D-II playoffs as the #1 seed for three straight years; A deep playoff run is now the norm for WUHS girls hockey. 

Pivotal to that transformation, of course, has been the players. Co-captain Isabel Konijnenberg, who’d only started playing hockey as a sophomore when she transferred to WUHS from a school in Massachusetts, is a devil on the ice who combines speed, agility, and power to leave opponents scrambling just to stay upright (in the Wasps’ 3-0 semifinal victory against Hartford, she put two defenders on their butts with one move on a play in the second period).

“She’s a good athlete,” Coates said as a knowing understatement.

Fellow senior and co-captain Lily Gubbins has been the bedrock of the defense during both title runs and was crucial in the game against the Blades, stopping two great goal-scoring opportunities with hyper-focused stick deflections and also acts as a stabilizer and puck-progressor on the team’s offense. 

Sophomore Kassidy Haley has scored more than 50 points in each of the past two seasons and rivals Konijnenberg in skate speed and attacking prowess. Her 56 points this season were a team-high and she led the team in both goals (31) and assists (25), though junior center Gracelyn Laperle nipped at her heels with 24 dimes of her own on the year.

Junior defender Hannah Gubbins, Lily’s sister, poured in 24 points, including two huge assists in the semifinal.

Coates praised the team’s experience for maintaining its resolve in the face of adversity and praised the leadership of his captains, Konijnenberg and Lily Gubbins. 

“They’re just leaders in the locker room, on and off the ice, and great people,” Coates said. “They’re very passionate about the game and they really care about the team, those are the right people to have in those positions.”

Coates will have to find a way to replace the leadership of the two outgoing seniors next season. Going into this year, the team didn’t name any alternate captains as a way to see who was really ready to step up.

“There’s been moments this year where you can sort of see who wants that role and who might not,” Coates said. “We’re in that situation where we really don’t know and so that’s kind of a bit scary, but also with how small our team is already, losing three seniors is a little scary, too.”

As for Lily Gubbins and Konijnenberg, their futures in hockey are a bit murky as well. Konijnenberg is playing soccer at Williams College (Mass.) in the fall and hasn’t ruled out playing hockey. Gubbins hopes to at least play club hockey in the future.

But on Thursday night, huddled with their friends, coaches and family in the little connecting room between their locker room and an exit to Gutterson Field House’s ice rink, only the celebration of winning as a team was on the outgoing captain’s minds. 

“Couldn’t ask for a better season,” senior defender Lily Gubbins said. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to sign off.”