The Central Wisconsin Storm girls hockey team lost a WIAA sectional semifinal to Hayward 4-2 on Tuesday at Greenheck Fieldhouse at D.C. Everest High School. (Submitted photo)

For Wausau Pilot & Review

WESTON – The weight of being the defending state champions finally caught up with the Central Wisconsin Storm.

Hungry and determined, the Hayward Hurricanes rode a hat trick by the state’s leading goal scorer, Riley Sprenger, to end the Storm’s bid to repeat, with a 4-2 win at Greenheck Fieldhouse in a WIAA girls hockey sectional semifinal Tuesday night. The loss ends the Storm’s season with a 21-5 record.

“First, give Hayward and their coaching staff a lot of credit for going on a long road trip and beating us on our home ice,” co-head coach Dan Bauer offered after the game. “We played three really tight hockey games with them this year and late into third period this was anybody’s game. They found a way, hats off to them,” he continued.

The game’s opening period was a tight, checking affair that featured only nine total shots on goal.  Sprenger stretched out of the zone late in the period and split the Storm defense to get in alone on senior captain Chloe Lemke. She sent a wrist shot under Lemke’s glove for her 50th goal of the season.

A questionable checking call on freshman Ava Whitmore put Hayward on the powerplay with just under a minute left in the period. Twenty-eight seconds later Sprenger’s shot from right dot was stopped by Lemke, but trickled into the crease where Summer Hammann was able to poke it in giving the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead.

“For whatever reason, slow starts have plagued us all season long,” said Bauer.

The Storm answered with a strong second period. Sophomore Gabi Heuser grabbed a loose puck at the top of the circles and fired a shot just under the crossbar to get CWS on the board. It was Heuser’s 20th goal of the season and closed the Hurricanes lead to 2-1.

Lemke stopped Brooklyn Griffiths on a point blank rebound to keep the Hayward lead at one. CWS had several good scoring opportunities, including a couple of tight looks by Hannah Baumann and Tristan Wicklund. The best chance came when Baumann’s perfect pass sent Wicklund in alone late in the period. Hurricanes freshman net minder Mckenna Hutchison stopped nine second-period shots and Hayward took their 2-1 lead into the locker room.

With Whitmore in the penalty box and the season on the line, Heuser came to the rescue. Sophomore Ave Rode shut down the Hurricanes’ rush and fed a long pass to Heuser, who dangled the defenseman, then circled behind the net, came out the other side and lifted a backhand over Hutchinson to tie the game at 2-2 with just under 10 minutes to play. 

“Gabi can do some amazing things with puck on her stick and has proven she can score when she gets to the net,” said Bauer. The sophomore has 37 goals in her first two seasons.

The back-breaking go-ahead goal for the Hurricanes came off a loose puck between the hash marks.  While seven players scrambled to locate the puck, it was Sprenger who found it and rifled a shot past Lemke to put Hayward up 3-2 with just over three minutes to play.

Bauer defended his All State goaltender. “She never saw that shot, there was a wall of players in front of her and somehow, Sprenger got it through all the bodies and into the net. Good goal scorers always seem to have some puck luck too.”

Central Wisconsin pulled its goaltender with 2:27 to play and putting several good shots on the Hurricanes’ net, but the freshman, Hutchinson denied them all. After a high stick brought the face-off back to the CWS end, it was Sprenger, off a face-off win by Reese Sheehan, that ended the Storm hopes with her third goal of the game. Lemke finished the game with 20 saves and Hutchinson with 17.

Hurricanes head coach, Emily Clark praised the Storm’s effort, “Their girls played their hearts out tonight and left it all out on the ice.”

Bauer, watching his 32nd season on the bench come to an end praised his team’s season-long battle. “It is tough to wear that bullseye on our back all season (being the defending state champs), and it is tough to duplicate that hunger to get back again,” he noted.  “Winning 21 games in no small task and running off 13 straight wins, there is a lot to be proud of. We will bounce back, that hunger will return.”

The Hurricanes, winners of 14-straight games will meet Superior in the sectional final on Saturday at noon at the Spooner Civic Center.