MISSOULA — They're easily the most under-publicized two-time defending state champions in all of western Montana.

They wear helmets and shoulder pads. And they're girls.

The Missoula Lady Bruins U19 hockey team lifts weights and skates and sometimes wakes up at 5 in the morning just to get precious ice time at Glacier Ice Rink. They're so good that they'll be competing in the USA Hockey National High School Girls Championship in Cleveland in late March.

Not only is it a first for the Lady Bruins, it's a first for Montana.

"This is the strongest team we've ever had," said Lady Bruins seventh-year head coach Grace Hoene, whose team is busy battling it out in the Northern Rockies Classic this weekend in Missoula.

"We started talking about nationals last season after we won our second state championship. We've been thinking this is the year to declare. It's been a long-term development for all the girls on the team. Myself and my co-coach, Annie Petschauer, we've coached these girls for years."

What makes the Lady Bruins story so endearing is they're not just rich kids. This team is the result of a house program that started years ago. A program funded by a grant that enabled any girl to participate for $100.

Goodness, they've come a long way. If you don't believe it, put on your mukluks and check out the team Sunday morning in its final performance of the Northern Rockies Classic. Admission is free.

"We've got a group of girls that play as a team," Hoene gushed. "If you come watch us, the first thing opponents usually say is, 'Wow, you guys move the puck, pass the puck well as a team.'

"We have some really good skaters, probably some of the best in the state individually. But we also play as a team."

They'll need to play as a team to win Sunday. Instead of just competing against community programs the way they have in the past, the Lady Bruins kicked it up a notch for this year's Northern Rockies Classic, creating an A Division so they could battle state all-star teams from places like Idaho and Utah.

"We've kind of gotten to the point where we need to be challenged a little bit more," Hoene offered. "We're hoping for really good competition that will prepare us for the state tournament in February and for nationals."

The Lady Bruins are not invincible. They have their hands full this weekend and they'd have an awfully hard time competing against a team from, say, Edina, Minnesota. That's where Hoene played her high school hockey.

"We're probably 15 to 20 years behind Minnesota, but we don't have that pool of 2,000 girls," Hoene said. "We've got more like 60. Then there's the issue with ice time."

"Nationals won't be every year for us. It's just a peak year this year with our goalie and players."

If you've ever watched our women's national hockey team play in the Winter Olympics, you're probably like me, counting the squad as a point of pride. Those feisty ladies earned gold in last year's winter spectacle in South Korea — a darn site better than the United States men's team.

Now western Montana has a girls hockey team it can crow about. A team consisting of players from Hellgate, Sentinel, Big Sky and Corvallis high schools — all working in harmony.

That might be the best part of all.

Editor's note: The Missoulian celebrates all the members of the Lady Bruins. The squad includes Hellgate's Sid Triepke, Andi Carnes, Hanna Huang, Madeleine Heggen, Ellie Jenni, Waverly Winterer and Aubrey McKay; Sentinel's Dora McDougall, Jaden Nielsen, Maddy Gallagher and Shaye Ewing; Big Sky's Pilar Seielstad and Natalie Herr and Frances Carrasco of Corvallis. The team is selling raffle tickets for gift baskets and a new hockey stick at this weekend's tourney, hoping to raise money for road trips.     

Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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