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Friday, October 31, 2014

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Goalie racks up honours at NCAA Division III school

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Ali Ponte

According to a recent game summary, Plymouth State University’s Ali Ponte stopped 29 of 30 shots to lead the Panthers to a 2-1 victory over St. Michael’s College.

That’s a .967 save percentage – pretty good in any hockey league, including the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Women’s East, a Division III program.

While any goaltender would be happy with that statistic, you’d have to go back to earlier in the year to see just how good a season Ponte is having. In the Codfish Bowl Tournament – a New England tradition – the Richmond Hill native stopped 97 of 105 shots over two games, including a 64-save effort against Lake Forest University. The performances, albeit in a losing cause, led to Ponte being named to the All-Tournament Team.

Around the same time, Ponte was named to the ECAC Women’s East Weekly Honor Roll, marking the fourth time she’d received the recognition.

And then last week, she did it again. Following a 1-1 tie with New England College in which she stopped 33 of 34 shots, she was named to the ECAC Women’s East Weekly Honor Roll for the fifth time. Ponte made 12 saves in a hectic third period to help the Panthers kill three out of four penalties.

Ponte, a third-year player who’s studying environmental sciences, has been a key factor in Plymouth’s bid to make the playoffs for the first time ever.

So far this season, she’s sporting a 3.39 goals against average to go along with a .916 save percentage.

Given the rubber she’s seen, she’s pretty happy with the results. Speaking on the phone from New Hampshire, Ponte said she doesn’t mind seeing as many pucks as she did in the Codfish bowl. “I like getting shots, which is one of the things I like about being on the team,” she said.

Going to Plymouth, Ponte knew she’d likely see plenty of action. “It’s a new program, with a new culture,” she said. The team’s goal was to just get into the playoffs.

Now a junior in the hockey program, Ponte got a rude, if not unexpected, welcome to the league in her freshman year: “In my first year, we won only one game. It was kind of a rough year.”

Three-quarters of the players were freshmen like her, and last year, the difficulties continued. Conference powerhouse Norwich twice directed more than 50 shots at her in 14-0 pastings. In one, Ponte was pulled after allowing six goals in two periods. Her replacement allowed eight goals in one period. In one of the contests, her team replied with five shots of their own.

Overmatched? Undoubtedly. But this season, the Panthers are challenging for a playoff spot. At The CJN’s press time, the Panthers were 4-15-3 overall with three games remaining, versus Castleton, Saint Anselm College and UMass Boston. One win out of the three would clinch a playoff berth.

For Ponte, being counted on to backstop the team and give it a chance to win is something she relishes. “I love the pressure of being a goalie,” she said. “Even if your team doesn’t score, if you don’t let in a goal, you won’t lose.”

Like many kids of her generation, Ponte started skating at an early age and was playing hockey at eight. At around 10, she switched full time to netminding, attending goalie camps in the summer and playing against boys right up to Grade 10.

After playing for Markham Stouffville in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, the premier women’s hockey league in Ontario, she was recruited by Plymouth, earning a partial scholarship.

Given her experience playing at a top level in Ontario – “lots of girls [from the league] do end up on the Canadian Olympic team” – Ponte added a level of stability and leadership to the Panthers’ roster.

She’s got one more year at Plymouth next season, and after that, she’ll move to British Columbia to study geology in grad school and play in a women’s hockey league.

“I just love the game. I want to play for the fun of it,” she said.

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