But the rewards are terrific.
Just ask the girls of the Washington Wild, a Tier II U19 hockey team that won a league title against a number of top Canadian squads, and then finished first at the six-state Pacific District tournament to qualify for this week's USA Hockey National Championships in San Jose, Calif.
The Wild had been eliminated by an Alaska team at districts the last two years, but on March 10 the Wild prevailed 2-0 in Anaheim, Calif. And as the final seconds ticked off and the celebration began, "it was the best moment of my life," said 15-year-old Lydia Grauer of Mukilteo, the team's leading scorer with 67 goals and 29 assists in 57 games.
"I was on the ice for the last few seconds and it was really awesome," said Grauer, a sophomore at Kamiak High School. "We've worked so hard and it was really great to finally beat Alaska (after losing the last two years). And going to nationals will be just amazing because we'll get to compete against the best teams in the nation."
Heading to nationals "is absolutely unbelievable," agreed 17-year-old Bailey Ingalls, a senior at Snohomish High School. "I already have senior-itis at school, and now it's so hard to focus because of nationals. It's definitely the highlight of my senior year. I'd totally put it above prom."
The Wild players are between 14 and 18 years old, with most residing in the greater Seattle area, though two are from Bellingham, one is from Richland, and one is from Medford, Ore. Snohomish County is represented by Grauer, Ingalls, Maddie Davis of Edmonds (Shorecrest) and Julia Takatsuka of Lynnwood (Meadowdale).
The Wild plays in the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association, where they are one of seven teams -- and the only American team -- in their league. The team, which has a 51-7-4 season record, finally finished first after placing second and third the previous two seasons.
League home games are at an arena in Bellingham (cutting the travel distances for the Canadian teams), but road games are all in the greater Vancouver, B.C., area. The Wild has also traveled to six out-of-state tournaments, winning four and placing second twice.
The head coach is Les Grauer, Lydia's dad and a man with a long hockey background. He played at the University of Wisconsin for longtime college and pro coach Bob Johnson, where Johnson's son Mark and Bob Suter were Grauer's teammates before they headed off to win gold medals with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
Grauer began coaching the team in 2010, and the first two seasons were a time for the team's many young players to learn and develop. Injuries hampered the Wild a year ago -- one player was lost to a compound arm fracture, and another dropped out after a concussion -- but this season the team has surged.
"These types of seasons don't happen very often," Grauer said. "It's a function of a relatively healthy season and then adding a few (key players) to the core group that we already had. ... It's not like we've been blowing a lot of teams away. There's just been a series of pretty close games where we seem to find a way to battle through and win."
As the team heads off to nationals, he added, "I'm cautiously optimistic. We're fortunate to play in a very competitive league and we've been battle tested throughout the season. I think we're as prepared as anybody, if not more so."
No one is quite sure how good the teams are from the upper Midwest and Massachusetts, two of American hockey's traditional hotbeds, but Les Grauer believes his team "will have an opportunity to win (a national championship). But every game is going to be tough and we'll just have to find ways to win."
Like their coach, the girls on the team are excited and believe they have a chance to do well.
"I don't want to jinx us (with a lofty prediction)," Ingalls confessed with a smile. "But we've worked so hard and put so much into this. And if we keep playing the way we've been playing, I think we have just as good a chance as anybody."
"I really have no idea about any of the other teams," said 17-year-old goalkeeper Julia Takatsuka, who got the shutout in the district championship win against Alaska. "But I'm really excited. We've trained so hard and I'm really confident in our abilities, so I really hope we can win."
"Even if we don't win, it's still a huge accomplishment just getting there," Lydia Grauer said. "Our team's goal this year was to win districts, so we've already accomplished our goal. But now we're going to nationals and that's amazing."
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