Just over three minutes into overtime of the second WIAA girls hockey state semifinal game Friday afternoon, sophomore forward Zephryn Jager took the puck at center ice with no one but the goaltender in front of her.
Jager skated up the right slot and snuck the puck between Abby Okon’s legs to send the Sun Prairie co-op team into its first state championship game.
The Cougars survived a wild, back-and-forth affair, defeating the Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam Warbirds 3-2 at Dane County Coliseum.
“Zephryn’s got a knack for scoring really big goals. I honestly had a hard time watching,” said Sun Prairie coach Jeff Thornton, whose team also is known as the Cap City Cougars. “When I saw the puck kind of crawl between her legs in the back of the net, just elation. That’s a hell of a hockey game.”
The Cougars (21-6-1) will take on the Eau Claire North co-op at 12:10 p.m. today. The Stars (24-3-0) defeated D.C. Everest co-op 5-2 on Friday.
Jager was just one of several playmakers in a game that saw its script flipped several times.
The Cougars came out flat in the first period, getting outshot 8-2. Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam (19-9) took a 1-0 lead, scoring just 62 seconds in on a deflection by senior forward Mary Skorupa.
“It was probably our worst period of the year,” Thornton said. “We got off the ice after the first period and I said, ‘We’ve owned the second period all year. Go out and do your job and play our style of hockey and take this thing back.’ And they did.”
With 6 minutes left in the second, Jager ripped a shot from the slot that was deflected in by senior forward Colleen Milligan.
Five minutes into the final period, the Cougars (18-6-1) earned a 5-on-3 power play.
Senior defenseman Margo Thousand, the team’s leading point-getter, took the puck at the point and fired a cross-ice pass to Jager, who quickly dished it to a wide-open Milligan, who buried the point-blank opportunity for her second goal of the game.
At that point, it looked like Milligan, who scored the tying and go-ahead goals, would be the difference-maker for Sun Prairie.
To Thornton, that was no surprise.
“She’s been a sparkplug all year. They had the state awards banquet the other night and she didn’t get an award and I’m stunned,” Thornton said. “She’s probably the most unheralded player in the state. And I’m really excited that the entire state got to watch her because she’s a heck of a hockey player.”
But Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam refused to go quietly. With under five minutes to go, the Warbirds were awarded a penalty shot after a loose puck was covered in the crease by a Cougars defender.
The Warbirds’ Dayna Jones skated up the ice with a chance to tie it, but Cougars goalie Taylor Thornton, the coach’s daughter, made a sensational right pad save.
“It’s hard to watch as a coach. It’s even harder to watch as a father,” Jeff Thornton said. “She made a huge save. It was the save of the game.”
Just under two minutes later, Skorupa lit the lamp for the second time on a nifty backhander.
But Jager ended the suspense 3:07 into overtime.
“We never give up,” she said. “Our word this year has always been ‘believe’ and that’s all we did.”
Said Milligan, “We believed in each other on the bench. We knew we had to hype each other up and keep playing.”
Coach Thornton emphasized his team isn’t done yet.
“We wanted to be the first Cougar team to get here back-to-back. We did. We wanted to be the first Cougar team to win a game here. We did,” Thornton said. “We have one more goal. You can probably imagine what it is. We’re gonna come out tomorrow and work our tails off. Win or lose, we’ll be proud of this team.”
Sun Prairie co-op 0 1 1 1 — 3
Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam 1 0 1 0 — 2
First period: FDL — Skroupa (Brown, Kirschbam), 1:02.
Second period: SP — Milligan (Jager), 11:00.
Third period: SP — Milligan (Jager, Thousand) pp, 5:13. FDL — Skorupa (Brown), 14:03.
Overtime: SP — Jager, 3:07.
Shots — SP 28 (Jager 6, Bauer 5, Sheridan 4, Baker 3, Milligan 3); FDL 26 (Skorupa 8, Brown 6, Deanovich 4). Saves — SP (Thornton) 24; FDL (Olson) 25. Penalties — SP 4-8; FDL 4-8.