(Photo: Nicholas Badders/WCSN)

For football, basketball and baseball, it’s obvious who the rival of Arizona State is.

Arizona.

Even the smaller sports at ASU like volleyball, soccer and softball and feature big implications when playing “that team down south.” When the men’s hockey team played at the ACHA level, their bouts with the Wildcats were ones to remember. Seemingly every sport ASU funds an NCAA team for, the University of Arizona does as well.

But for the ACHA women’s hockey team at ASU, they do not have a counterpart in Tucson. Instead, they only need to drive 30 minutes northwest for a rivalry atmosphere, something the team experienced over the weekend at AZ Ice Peoria when they took on the Grand Canyon Lopes.

The two teams squared off for two games at the beginning of the season. For ASU, it was a chance for a fresh start after a rough inaugural season. For GCU, it was a chance to put themselves on the map and establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the ACHA.

In the season’s opening night, the two teams went into overtime and the game ended in a draw, a tie of 1-1.

The next night, determined to win their first game of the season, the Lady Devils came out strong and were victorious, winning by a score of 4-1.

While the successful start to their season was important, the rivalry atmosphere did not go unnoticed. Both teams had large cheering sections in the crowd and the games were chippier than any ASU had played in before.

What happened next between the two teams was, however, what truly what created the cross-valley rivalry.

To conclude the WWCHL showcase in Boulder, Colo., ASU and GCU squared off at a neutral site, with ASU looking to win their fourth game of the season. The Lopes, however, were still in search of their first program victory. And Nov. 5 in Boulder, they found that win, upending the Devils 1-0.

“After losing to them, we never want that feeling again and we just want to show that this is our house, our state. We started this,” ASU captain KC McGinley said.

In between Sept. 23 when the Devils came out on top and the 1-0 game, ASU went 2-5 and was outscored 27-14. GCU, however, had a far tougher time. They played nine games and went 0-9, outscored 56-7 in those games. They came into their third battle eager to change direction and for a day, were able to do that.

While the Lopes have played significantly better hockey since then, the loss for ASU flipped the team’s mindset on and off the ice. The season series was all tied up, 1-1-1, with two more games left to play between the teams. What it did for the Devils was it made them hungrier for the victory. And it truly cemented that the cross-valley rivalry was for real.

“Playing against GCU again, it’s still like a home game for us because it’s only across the valley and that’s so new to us,” ASU head coach Lindsey Ellis said after the team’s last practice before the games. “They [the ASU women’s hockey team] know that the series is tied and they want to beat this team and they know they can.”

Between games No. 3 and 4 in the rivalry, there was approximately a month-long break. The goal for the Sun Devils in that time? Remember what the loss felt like and don’t let it happen again.

“After our loss against them last time, we’re definitely out for revenge,” captain Amber Galles said in anticipation of the final games of the rivalry. “We definitely want to come out and win, especially in their home rink. We want to take it to them: hard, fast, strong.”

In their first year as a program, while the record was not there, ASU was the only team in the state. Therefore, they were the best team in the state. But, with the emergence of the program at GCU, there was now a true battle to be the best team in the Grand Canyon State. While “Grand Canyon” may be in the state’s nickname, the girls at ASU headed into Peoria determined to prove that the state of Arizona, was controlled by the ladies representing Arizona State University.

“Arizona is ours. Not purple and black. It’s maroon and gold.” – Dannika Borges

From the first puck drop Friday night, the chippiness that fans saw in Tempe back in September was back. The fans were into the game. And that game was all ASU. The Devils and goalie Jordan Nash-Boulden, a Cave Creek, Arizona native, recorded the first shutout in program history. Additionally, the win was the first victory on the road in the program’s short history as well.

With a win under their belt and no less than a series tie clinched, the team was not yet finished, however, as they were eager to win the weekend and season series.

Out of the gate Saturday, the Devils made it clear that they were the top team in Arizona, as Catherine Jones found the net just minutes into the game. ASU tacked on another goal, their first shorthanded goal in the program’s history, before the period was even halfway over and held a 2-0 lead until the third period.

The rough play continued through the entire game, with penalties being called consistently all night long. As the aggressiveness increased, GCU was finally able to score. With it being the team’s “Teddy Bear Toss” night, it gave the Sun Devils a few extra minutes to regroup, given that their lead was only by one goal.

The message from Ellis?

Don’t worry about the goal, keep going and get one in the net to show them that their goal means nothing.

“We just wanted to make them look silly after that Teddy Bear Toss,” captain KC McGinley said after the sweep. “They were wasting their own time, they were down and we wanted to stick it to them, but it’s always nice to get a W on someone else’s rink when all their fans are here are they’re super hype. We were just coming together, getting our momentum back because we had nothing to hang out heads about and we wanted to show that”

McGinley took the message to heart, as barely five minutes after GCU’s goal, she and the Devils answered back, putting ASU up 3-1 and putting the nail in GCU’s coffin on the weekend.

“They’re Grand Canyon, we’re Arizona State, so this is our state. They can’t take anything from us.” – Catherine Jones

In both games, goals were scored by Jones and Taylor England, who hail from Phoenix and Tempe, respectively. In the second game of the weekend, McGinley scored the game’s final goal. McGinley? A Scottsdale native.

With the series sweep, the Sun Devils improve to 5-8-1 this season, 3-1-1 against the Lopes. On the flip side, they are 2-7-0 against teams that are not GCU.

Many look at ASU’s record this season and see that four of the six games they have not lost have come against GCU, leading them to believe that three wins and a tie against a first-year program put them in a position no better than they were at the end of last season, where they finished with a record of 2-15. Outside of an increase in home contests, the five games with GCU are the main difference in their schedule this season compared to last.

What these five games signify, however, is something much bigger than games on a schedule or wins and losses in the standings. The competition in those games represents significant growth for the sport of women’s hockey on not only a regional scale in Arizona or on the West Coast, but on a national level.

For McGinley, the games, even though they are against a first-year program leave her team with something to prove, something bigger than themselves.

“It’s awesome and it’s so good for us, it gives us a little extra fire, something to prove even more now that we’re not a first-year program and they are,” McGinley said.

This rivalry between two schools that very rarely, if ever, play each other in university-sanctioned athletics, provides credibility to what Ellis is trying to do in Tempe.

When she began to formulate plans for a club program at ASU, it was about giving girls a chance to play collegiate hockey on the West Coast, an opportunity she, herself, did not have, instead traveling halfway across the country to play at Miami of Ohio (whom ASU play in February). Ellis’ successful endeavor proved to be a vision that was shared by GCU, as after just one season of her program playing in the desert, there was another a short drive away.

When a schedule is released for one of the many NCAA teams at ASU, the first game fans look for is the Territorial Cup. While the cup is only literal with every sport outside of football, it signifies dominance over the state of Arizona, it is the biggest matchup of the year, regardless of records or playoff hopes.

That is exactly what was seen in the games between ASU and GCU. For GCU, their playoff hopes are slim to none, but for ASU, their hopes are still alive, yet these games have little impact on their playoff standing, with the real test coming against Denver at the end of January.

Now, what the ACHA and WWCHL have on their hands is a rivalry that in one season, went past the stages of “budding” and became something players, coaches and fans alike cared about. The two games in Tempe and Peoria were the most energetic of the season from the fans and the most exciting to watch on the ice, for either team. When the schedules are released over the summer, every ASU fan’s eye will scan the list of games for one school: GCU.

Girls who want to stay on the West Coast to play collegiate hockey now have two choices — Arizona State and Grand Canyon. And as the years pass, the programs will continue to grow, one day hoping to reach the echelons that Greg Powers and the men’s team were able to capture in 2014, winning a national championship, then later, earning NCAA status.

While the GCU Lopes may be no Arizona Wildcats, they are just as fierce of a rival for the ASU women’s hockey team. And that rivalry is working to legitimize and grow the sport of women’s hockey in the Valley and nationally.

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