From The Michigan Daily
By Tasmia Jamil
With the game tied at 1-1 heading into sudden death overtime, every possession was crucial for the Michigan women’s club hockey team at the ACHA National Tournament. But after 64 saves in two games combined throughout the postseason, one slipped away from Sandrine Ponnath, resulting in a heartbreaking end to the Wolverines’ season.
While that final moment may be engraved in the minds of the viewers, it doesn’t take away from Michigan’s heights throughout the season — ones that resulted in its first appearance in the tournament since 2016. And much of the credit for paving the road to a successful season is attributed to the sophomore goaltender.
As the only goaltender on the roster, the women’s club team has heavily depended on Ponnath to anchor its defense in every game — and she has embraced the pressure. With an astounding .950 save percentage and 1.46 goals allowed through 28 games, she has been a pillar of consistency.
“She puts the team on her back every single game,” Michigan coach Jenna Trubiano told The Michigan Daily. “She just wants to compete, she wants to get better and she wants to win.”
And that willingness to take on the challenge of competing — and excel in it — isn’t unfamiliar to Ponnath. That’s exactly what she’s been doing her whole life, as she has navigated her way through the peaks and valleys of her young hockey career.
Growing up in Southern California, Ponnath was always around the rink. While hockey isn’t a dominant part of the regional sports scene, her older brother playing hockey quickly developed her interest in the game.
At just four years old, Ponnath began to learn how to skate before joining the Lady Ducks — an affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks Youth Hockey Program — the following year as a skater. That is, until one practice in her first season. The team needed a goaltender, and a six-year-old Ponnath — still learning the ropes of the game — rushed to volunteer.
Ponnath was initially unfamiliar with the different level of concentration and set of reflexes required for the position. Eager to learn, though, she was ecstatic to undertake the task. Using spare gear at the facility that almost seemed too heavy for her, she stepped on the ice to play from the net for the first time. And after the practice, exiting the rink while gleaming in excitement, she made up her mind.
“She ran to us and said ‘I’m going to be a goalie,’ ” Ponnath’s mom, Claudette Milan, told The Daily. “I thought that would be the last time she’d ever get that. Goalie is different than playing out. (But) she said I’m gonna be a goalie and that was it.”
As Ponnath began to grasp the new skill sets, her eagerness to compete only grew. Just a year later, she was ready to take the next step.
In a state with few opportunities for youth hockey — let alone girls’ hockey — the next step for Ponnath came in the form of switching to the Ducks’ boys’ program. Although the level of play and physical intensity shifted, Ponnath adjusted to fit into the team, relying on her strengths and training. But her main obstacle came off the ice.
“The people either hate you or they love you,” Ponnath told The Daily. “When I was competing for spots … people’s parents would come up to me and be like ‘Oh, you’re a girl, sit on the bench’ (and) stuff like that. So it taught me a lot but I’m really grateful for it.”
As one of the few female players every season on boys’ teams, Ponnath’s participation wasn’t always well received, often subjecting her to such commentaries. But she refused to let it serve as a barrier to the opportunity at hand. Instead, she changed her approach.
“She gained respect based on her attitude, her skill (and) her commitment. She would go to practice when she wasn’t even feeling great,” Milan said. “She just kind of blocked out the negatives because it wasn’t productive.”
With the game at the forefront, Ponnath shifted her primary focus to improving herself every practice and following the passion for hockey that landed her on the team to begin with. That approach to the game extended even beyond the ice, onto the dry surface as Ponnath spent summers participating in roller hockey. And as she spent more time honing her skills, her competitive energy only grew.
Even though the Ducks’ AAA U12 boys team offered a high level of competition, the presence of scouts at tournaments for male players occasionally limited Ponnath’s playing time. Missing out on the opportunity to face challenging opponents and showcase her abilities, Ponnath chose to test the waters on the East Coast.
Unlike California, youth hockey is more popular in the Eastern states — creating stronger developmental programs and more competitive opportunities, especially for female players. Ponnath decided to travel to Stowe, Vermont, where she attended the North American Hockey Academy’s girls’ program. She tallied a shutout in each of the four games she played before transitioning into another short stint in Rochester, New York.
After spending two years away contesting against talented players on the other side of the country, Ponnath returned to California. With new experiences, yet the same relentless drive, she ultimately joined the Capistrano United Coyotes — another affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks and another majority male-dominated program. And under the circumstances, her defensive prowess as a goaltender once again prevailed.
“We enjoyed having her as goalie within the program,” Coyotes coach Jean Labbe told The Daily. “She provided a lot of confidence to our players because she was solid back there … I think that’s why the players wanted her or accepted her because she was really good.”
As part of the Coyotes’ 2019 Division II team, Ponnath recorded a .931 save percentage, including a shutout, in her eight games. Replicating a similar caliber performance in the playoffs, she helped lead Capistrano to its second California Amateur Hockey Association Varsity Division 2A title. The win gave the Coyotes an automatic bid to compete at the USA Hockey Nationals — a chance for the team and Ponnath to showcase their talents at the highest level. However, the COVID-19 pandemic scraped it away.
“My junior year was kind of a last ditch effort to try to go (to) an NCAA team,” Ponnath said. “I kind of lost love for (the game) because I had been doing it for so long, so intensely and the following year we had COVID year, so at that point, I was like, ‘Oh I’m just gonna rely on academics.’ ”
While Ponnath played softball and lacrosse growing up, hockey was always the limelight of her sports career. However, her drive to contend with the best — that propelled her from girls’ programs to boys’ programs and from Southern California to the East Coast — couldn’t eventually land her a spot on an NCAA Division I women’s hockey team.
Instead of lamenting over the what-ifs, though, Ponnath concentrated on narrowing down her college choices. She was down to two options — the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Michigan — neither with a varsity women’s hockey program. But the two schools had one essential difference for Ponnath: a club women’s hockey team.
“I found out (about) the club team … and that was kind of the tipping point,” Ponnath said. “Hockey has been part of my life for so long. I feel like life would not be the same without it.”
For most athletes, after spending years training like Ponnath, a club team would almost sound like a disappointing outcome. But for Ponnath, it was just enough. Regardless of the level of play and change of pace, it has always been about competing and playing the game she had enjoyed growing up. And the women’s club hockey team provided just that opportunity.
In her two seasons, Ponnath has maximized the opportunity. After posting a .952 save percentage her freshman year, she was named ACHA All-American Second Team and the list of merits has only lengthened in her second season. Earning conference accolades — ACHA All-Athletics Second Team and CCWHA All-Season First Team — this year, Ponnath has established herself as one of the best players on the roster.
But more than the accolades and the statistics, it’s the intensity and competitive spirit that Ponnath brings to every game — something she has done her entire career — that resonates with her teammates.
“She’s not the most vocal (but) her presence, I think it’s influencing people to do their best because they see it in her too,” sophomore defenseman Katie German told The Daily. “The high level hockey that she played and the high level hockey she aspires herself to play to help the team definitely drives everyone to do their best.”
Ponnath’s attitude toward the game is the anchoring force behind the heights the Michigan club team has achieved this season. Although it came up short, with Ponnath as the goaltender next year, the expectations and confidence remain the same.
After all, at the end of the day, Ponnath will compete like she always has.
(Originally published at https://www.michigandaily.com/sports/she-just-wants-to-compete-sandrine-ponnaths-road-to-michigan-womens-club-hockey/)