Having played for Team USA’s entry at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds in Zug, Switzerland, Cherie Stewart took on the role of a veteran in 2017. With this year’s Worlds being hosted in Pardubice, Czech Republic, one of the most dominant countries in the history of the event, there was a strong motivation in the return to Europe, as Stewart and her American teammates were eager to prove that they were capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the game’s titans.
Stewart would quickly make an impact for an ambitious squad looking to build on its fourth place status from 2015. Competing against an Italian team that was also looking for its first-ever podium finish, it was an intense competition that saw both teams playing in their first game of the event. With Penn State alum Nicole Paniccia among the numerous heritage players for Team Italia, she was valiant between the pipes, frequently frustrating the US offensive attack.
As Italia enjoyed a 1-0 lead, Stewart would turn the tide in her team’s favor. Scoring against Paniccia at the 43:40 mark of the game, Taylor Steadman gained the assist. It was a goal that made a significant statement, setting the tone for a US team that would prove to be resilient throughout the event. With Stewart’s goal forcing overtime, Erica Simpson would log the game-winning tally in a dramatic shootout.
Considering that it marked the first time that the players named to the US roster actually took to the court together as a team, Stewart’s leadership and big game experience helped accelerate the gelling process. Although there were many games left to play in Pardubice, such a meaningful goal can truly be considered a turning point in the tournament, one that provided the team with a tremendous confidence, establishing them as a team to watch in the following games.
“That was actually the first time our team played together as a team, and it's always nice to start a tournament with a W, so I'm happy that we won that game. To be able to come back and tie the game up and then win in a shootout gave our team a lot of confidence going forward in the tourney.
It gave us the belief that if we kept working hard and stayed calm then we could execute. Overall, I felt very fortunate to be given the nod to play in high-pressure situations like that and for us to tie it up and win was awesome.”
Among the hallmarks of Stewart’s experience in Zug was the fact that she would be the first player in program history to compete in the NWHL. Gracing the ice with the New York Riveters in their inaugural season, she was the first African-American player in franchise history, part of a season that also saw Blake Bolden don the jersey of the Boston Pride.
The 2017 edition of the ISBHF Worlds would bring with it a tremendously more significant NWHL influence. In addition to Stewart’s return, she would be joined by Amber Moore, a former teammate on the Riveters, plus Paige Harrington. A member of the 2017 Isobel Cup champion Buffalo Beauts, Harrington had also played for the US women’s ice hockey team at the 2013 and 2015 World Winter University Games. In addition, Devon Skeats, a teammate of Harrington’s on the Beauts suited up for archrival Canada.
While such a collection of talent only adds to the NWHL’s growing legacy, it was definitely a strong point of pride for Stewart to be reunited with a former Riveters teammate on Team USA. Having encouraged Moore to try out for the team, Stewart was familiar with her leadership qualities and strong work ethic.
“Well, I definitely nudged her to tryout so I was very happy when she made the team. Obviously, Amber is a top notch player and so fun to be around...a great locker room presence.
I was so glad that I was able to train with her, Amber being one of my closest friends, and for us to play on an international stage together and get a medal was truly special. Amber adds great defensive depth to the program and hopefully she sticks with the US ball hockey program for seasons to come.”
Having been part of Team USA in 2015, the chance for Stewart to return and be part of a historic podium finish signified a proud career milestone. Jubilant at the fact that she was able to share in this historic podium finish with teammates that have also become cherished friends, Stewart’s philosophical approach to the game managed to keep any ambitions in perspective,
“To get a silver medal was amazing! To be honest - going into the tournament, I was not too focused on getting a podium finish but focused more on getting myself mentally prepared for each game. I knew our team could accomplish great things, but we focused shift by shift rather than the end goal.
Looking back, I am just so grateful that I got the opportunity to play for this team with all the talented players and great coaching staff that we had. Even though we only had a short period of time together as a team, we were able to gel fairly quickly and had a lot of fun on/off the rink.
I think our chemistry off the rink translated well on to the rink. It meant so much to me to win a medal with that group (players, coaches and staff). I am even more grateful that I can call my teammates my friends as well.”
Finishing third in team scoring, and 13th overall in tournament play, Stewart was part of six American-born players that ranked among the top 20 scorers in Pardubice. Not only did she deliver with a goal in a win against Great Britain, she also contributed to the biggest win in the history of the program.
Facing off against eternal rival Canada in the opening game of the medal round, Stewart and fellow Team USA veteran Julia Bronson assisted on a goal by Kelly Foley, who once called Bronson a teammate with Dartmouth in the Ivy League. In a high stakes game which assured the winner a chance to play for the gold medal, Stewart can lay claim to being part of a monumental chapter in program history, contributing towards a 3-2 victory against Canada, their first ever.
In spite of an overtime loss to host country Czech Republic in the gold medal game, the outcome of Pardubice was a significant breakthrough for the US. Affirming her status as a prime time player, Stewart has not only established herself as a key building block for the team, but the quest to maintain its standing as one of the world’s finest teams, brings an exciting optimism as the quest for gold in 2019 begins now.
Looking towards the game’s future, Stewart is optimistic that the silver medal is destined to be part of a bigger achievement. One that sees the historic podium finish spur interest among casual fans and novice players, simultaneously serving as a watershed moment for ball hockey in the United States, making this remarkable collection of talent that wore the red, white and blue much more tangible in the sporting conversation.
“Of course! With our recent success, not only with a medal finish but beating teams that the U.S. women’s team has never beaten before, just shows that the U.S. women’s ball hockey program is building and moving in the right direction.
Within the last few years, I've noticed first-hand an increase of talent and enthusiasm for the women's ball hockey program and it’s a great thing to see.
I believe the coaching staff, GMs and the ASHI program are doing a great job of growing the game and attracting talented players from different hockey backgrounds. Overall, I think there's more success to come for the U.S. women’s ball hockey program going forward.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: ASHI