WINSLOW — Amber Kochaver admits that she was pretty nervous when her first season with the Messalonskee boys hockey team began this winter,

“I’m a freshman and these are all seniors and wicked good players that know what they’re doing,” she said Saturday after the Eagles’ beat Camden Hills 3-1 in a Class B North semifinal at Sukee Arena. “Somehow, I’ve made it through the year and just came out strong in the end.”

Saturday night against the Windjammers, Kochaver had arguably her best game of the season. She finished with 32 saves and helped ensure Messalonskee (13-5-2) would be playing in the regional final for a fifth straight season. The third-seeded Eagles play No. 1 Waterville (17-1-1) Tuesday at the University of Maine’s Alfond Arena for the Class B North title.

“From the start of the season (Kochaver has gotten) a lot more confident and a lot better,” Messalonskee senior captain Dylan Burton said. “Her skill I’d say has been there for a while. It’s just that freshman mentality of not being used to the pressure. She’s been getting a lot stronger over the year.”

In many ways the improvement of Kochaver and fellow freshman goalkeeper Eli Michaud — whom she split time with at the start of the season — has embodied this year’s Messalonskee team.

The previous two seasons for the Eagles produced a pair of state championships and just a single loss as they dominated most of their competition as frontrunners from start to finish. Heading into this winter Messalonskee knew it would have to be patient with no clear-cut option in net. As the season has progressed the Eagles have done their best to remain calm, all the while occupying the unfamiliar position of looking up at other teams in the standings.

“It’s tough for a freshman — girl especially — to come in here and fill the spots of the goalies we’ve had in the past like Nate DelGiudice, Benny Weeks, Elija Tuell,” Messalonskee senior captain Jared Cunningham said. “It’s tough shoes to fill and I think she’s filled them pretty well.”

Kochaver’s improvement as the season has gone on has as much to do with skill development as it does with confidence.

Her father, Richard, first introduced her to hockey when she was four, and two years ago she made the switch to goalie. Though she was not new to the sport, the transition from house leagues to the high school level is often challenging for freshmen both physically and mentally.

“(Michaud and Kochaver) are both young, they both haven’t had this experience and they’re both playing against a speed that’s 10 times faster than they have before,” Messalonskee coach Joe Hague said. “Shots are harder, the competition level in front of them is different. For them to step up — and especially her to step up and have a game like (Saturday) — is very important for this team.”

Kochaver said she has felt welcomed by the team and that has helped shake away some of that nervousness she felt earlier in the season — which has been critical on the ice. Her small stature leaves larger portions of the goal open compared to the average netminder, but that confidence boost has helped her to adjust her play accordingly.

“I’ve had to change my game a little bit,” Kochaver said. “I’ve had to come out more and be more aggressive.”

Kochaver is not the only one who has improved throughout the season, as the Eagles have been for the most part better defensively as of late. Couple that with continued high scoring of Brandon Nale and Jared Cunningham, who have 81 and 76 points, respectively, on the season, and Messalonskee’s patience finally seems to be paying off.

That being said, the Eagles are not exactly satisfied with what they have achieved thus far.

“We don’t want to sit there and say we finally got there because then we’d almost be settling,” Hague said. “We want to keep the momentum going.”

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley

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