Gaucho goaltender Nora Penn was perhaps one of the most unheralded heroes of last season, and all coming from a somewhat unexpected place.
It started simply enough, with a message to the team Facebook page about whether goaltending equipment could be provided during tryouts.
Then it was riding a bicycle to and from tryouts, getting fitted in an unfamiliar setup, and playing on a rink with different dimensions from those she had grown up on.
Nothing was 'usual' about the way that Nora Penn found her way to the Ice Hockey at UCSB program. But, it's also unusual for ACHA programs to have the luxury of an international student with years of high level regional experience between the pipes.
Playing with a men's hockey team was nothing new for Penn, who had played for Wanderers Germering in her native Germany. The club, a team in the Bavarian state league, had her slotted at the U19 level during the 14-15 season, and moved her up to U21 before the conclusion of the campaign. The following year at the age of 20, she suited up for the U23 side.
Possessing all the stylistic hallmarks of European goaltending, Penn was able to comfortably adapt to the North American ice sheet with her strong positional and play-reading skills, backed by technically sound fundamentals. Very quickly the Gauchos found they had the backbone in net on which they could rely as a steady presence.
Over the course of a campaign that saw her play nearly every minute of the season, save for 8:37 when backup Brian Scullion started against UCLA but suffered an injury, the German goalie would allow four or fewer goals in eight of her 15 appearances. During league play in the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association, Penn lead the outfit in minutes played and wins, while finishing second in saves, save percentage, and goals against average.
It was in the biggest moments when her play shone brightest. She stared down and outperformed the PCHA's top goalie Frankie Nix when Santa Clara visited Ice in Paradise, allowing just five goals on 47 shots for the weekend, as the Gauchos won 3-2 in overtime and then 7-3. Against Santa Rosa JC in the final meeting between the teams she stopped 25 of 28 shots, including all eight in the third period to seal the deal and the season series sweep with a 4-3 win.
However, it was against local rival California Lutheran where Penn authored her signature performance. The visiting Knights pelted her with pucks all night, yet through wave after wave she stood resolute. UCSB jumped ahead early 2-0 on goals by Tyler Barone and Christian Okpysh in the opening 91 seconds of the game, and from there the torrent off the sticks of the visitors unleashed.
17 shots against in the first period, all saved. 16 more in the second, with only one through. Nine shots in the third period and overtime, and Penn denied all but one. When all was told, she stopped 40 of the 42 against, enabling the dramatic winner just 61 seconds in to the extra session when Barone ripped home his second of the game from the slot.
After it was over, when she was being interviewed at center ice on the video broadcast, the rest of the Gauchos boisterously barreled up behind her to show their appreciation with hoots, hugs, head taps, and a little extra water to help cool off.
To be able to compete on the ice, while balancing academics at a world class institution in a foreign land is an accomplishment to behold. To do so, and perform at such a high level is another entirely.
It was striking on the final night of tryouts. Head coach Scott Hyers made sure to tell his goalie-to-be to get home safely as she readied to bike off in to the night, and in the future get a ride from her teammates. It's not a situation a hockey coach usually finds himself, and the team in.
Then again, Nora Penn isn't your usual goalie.