Winona goalie faced 100 shots in a game, kept coming back for more
Aliya Gricius has been a pillar between the pipes for the Winona girls hockey team. Her hard work has paid off this season, as the Winhawks have won nine games will host a Section 1A playoff game.
WINONA, Minn. — There were times during Aliya Gricius’ first two seasons of high school hockey where she would leave the arena between periods.
The young Winona High School goalie wasn’t calling an Uber to get out of there, she was just trying to cool her body and relax her mind.
“It was really physically exhausting,” Gricius said, “and also very mentally exhausting. No, there wasn’t much time to relax my mind or body.”
Gricius was but an eighth-grader during her first season as the Winhawks goalie, in 2020-21. That also happened to be the first time in four years that Winona put a varsity girls hockey team on the ice.
The young Winhawks took their lumps. Over the course of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, they went winless and scored a total of 15 goals in 37 games. Gricius played in 33 of those games and posted an .889 save percentage, an outstanding number considering she faced an average of 55.4 shots per game and stopped an average of 49.21 of them.
“I honestly don’t know if she was prepared — I don’t know if anyone could be prepared; her first (varsity) game she made 88 saves,” said her dad and goalie coach, Steve Gricius. “I don’t think she’d ever seen that many shots in a game, but she was excited to play, wanted to show up and see what she could do.
“She’d come off the ice after a period and would go outside to cool off, try to recover, drink an energy drink. It was mentally exhausting too.”
On three occasions as an eighth-grader, Gricius made more than 80 saves in a game, topped by a mind-boggling 92-save effort (on 101 shots) in a loss to Northfield on March 13, 2021.
“We knew the whole situation going in” to Aliya’s eighth-grade year, Steve Gricius said. “There was a big push here to get girls hockey in Winona going again. Her age group and the year above her, this year’s juniors, a bunch of them started at the same time. Now that group of girls have come up … they’ve kept the program going.”
No matter the Winhawks’ struggles over the first two years of the program’s rebirth, Aliya Gricius was always there, a salve that eased some of those growing pains.
“Those two years, there were mixed emotions,” Steve Gricius said. “(Aliya) had a lot of excitement to play varsity hockey and she got a lot of notoriety, all over the state, for the number of saves she was making and shots she was facing.
“That was fun, but it was also exhausting and frustrating for her at times.”
Though the Winhawks were shut out in their final five games a year ago, a confidence was growing among Gricius and her teammates. Three times last season they had come within a goal of tying an opponent and getting a chance at overtime. And, suddenly, the number of shots Gricius was facing in a game was in the 30s or 40s, rather than the 50s or 60s.
That confidence has blossomed in a big way this season.
The Winhawks won their season opener 2-1 at Red Wing, the first victory by a Winona varsity girls hockey team since an 8-2 win against Worthington on Dec. 29, 2016. Five days later the Winhawks won a home game for the first time since Jan. 26, 2016, beating Mankato West 5-0 at Bud King Ice Arena.
“I’m a naturally competitive person and I really like to win,” said Gricius, now a sophomore, who has stopped 2,337 of 2,609 shots faced in her varsity career, for an .896 save percentage. “That first win this year, it didn’t feel real. It was crazy. I was in shock. Everyone was in shock.”
As much as Gricius was ecstatic about the seven combined goals her teammates scored in those two wins, she appreciated another number just as much: 43. That was her combined saves total in those games.
“This year, I feel like it’s been a lot better for us,” said Gricius, who is averaging just fewer than 35 saves per game, with a high of 50, this season. “We’ve won nine games this year, more than the past two years and I feel like we’re playing really well as a team.
“It’s not as stressful.”
After those two early season wins, the Winhawks won seven more times during the 2022-23 regular season and secured a home playoff game, which is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday. The fourth-seeded Winhawks (9-13-0) host fifth-seeded Austin in a Section 1A quarterfinal.
“It helps us a lot that we’ve played together our whole careers,” Gricius said of her classmates and teammates. “It’s good that we have a couple more years to play and grow together. And with new girls, younger girls coming up, that will help a lot, too.”
The Gricius File
A busy backstop
A look at the number of saves Winona High School goalie Aliya Gricius has made per game over her three-year, 56-game varsity career: