---- — SALEM — When athletes are playing their best and having fun, they sometimes look like they’re playing in thier own back yard.
Marblehead senior Brittany Smith is one of the few players that can make that cliche work on a hockey rink.
The Lady Headers’ lone senior comes to the team from Manchester Essex, and honed her skills skating on a homemade ice surface in her yard. She was probably skating before she could talk.
“It’s funny, we were just watching home videos the other day. I think I was three. I might have been two,” said Smith, after notching a hat trick in Marblehead’s 3-3 tie with Chelmsford at Salem State’s Rockett Arena on New Year’s Day.
Smith grew up skating with her older brother, Cam, who was a standout for Rockport’s co-op boys program and is now playing junior hockey before heading to college. Three years ago, Marblehead expanded their co-op to include Manchester Essex, and the middle Smith was elated to be able to experience high school hockey.
“It was so exciting,” Smith said. “Freshman year I had to play basketball. I wasn’t so good.
“It’s been great getting to play high school hockey. The cool thing about playing for Marblehead is you get a whole new group of friends. It’s been a different experience from fall (club) hockey all together.”
The Lady Headers certainly got a gem in Smith, who has played defense, wing and center at various times over her two-plus seasons with the team. She started out as a defenseman, moved up to wing over the course of last season, and is now playing her natural position of center on Marblehead’s top line.
“I’ve always been a forward with my fall team with girls, but I played defense when I played with boys growing up, so I was comfortable there too,” said Smith, who was an All-Cape Ann League player for Manchester Essex’s highly successful field hockey team. She hopes to play ice hockey in college, though.
Smith is a very strong skater, with a unique ability to push the puck up the ice. She always seems to skate with her head up, allowing her to see both open space and open teammates as she moves.
“If she sees open ice, she’s going to take it,” said Marblehead coach Emily Hudak. “She’s even a little faster this year, and she’s always had that great shot.”
Smith’s shot is both hard and accurate. She had 15 goals and 25 assists as a sophomore, then exploded for 26 goals and 15 assists last year.
She already has 12 goals in four games this year, along with a pair of assists for 14 points. Smith has 53 goals, 33 assists and 86 points in her Lady Header career, putting her well on pace to be the first Marblehead skater to top 100 in five years.
What’s the best part of the game in the eyes of a player who can shoot and skate with the best in the area?
“I like battling on the boards. That’s probably my favorite part,” said Smith, the consumate three-zone player who also stands out in lacrosse for the Hornets.
As Marblehead’s only senior, Smith is the team’s captain. Her steely leadership has been important for a team that may be lean on years, but has plenty of experience since many of the players skated for the varsity while they were in middle school.
“She’s a great presence on the ice, but she’s even more important as a presence in the locker room,” said Hudak. “She’s the type of player that kids look up to, and she’s a good leader. When she says something, it gets everybody’s attention and she has the clout to back it up.”
Fellow forwards Brooke Keough and Emma Brophy have had strong starts for Marblehead, along with Hadley Woodfin, Sydney Cresta and Emmarose Winder. The defensemen Rose Callahan, Amanda Monahan, Caroline Hughes and Alana Burke are playing very well, and goalie Aly Hopkins has plenty of experience to go with improved quickness and strength in net.
“We have a young team, but the younger kids are good,” said Smith. “I think our goal is to get back to the state tournament. It was a bummer not to make it last year, so stepping up and making it back there has to be our biggest goal.”
Peabody caught a bit of bad luck before the holiday: rookie goaltender Lauren Hennessey was lost to a knee injury. The middle schooler from Lynnfield had a 1.99 goals against average in two-and-a-half games, and the Tanners (now 1-6) are hoping to get her back by the end of January. Jillian McCormick will see the bulk of the minutes in the meantime, and she brings back experience after having split the job with a graduated senior last year.
Sophia Post continues to be a goal scoring force for Peabody, on a newly formed line with Alise Murphy and senior Kristen Hennessey. Coach Larry Minehan has also been impressed with the second unit of Courtney Smith (a strong forward who can play in goal if needed), Hannah Travers and Caroline Buckley. Minehan also praised the play of defensemen Kaydee Purcell and Bella Piscatelli.
The Tanners are back in action Saturday against Arlington, hopefully with recharged batteries after having played three times in five days between Dec. 26-30.
Beverly coach Brian Seabury knew he’d have a strong first line led by senior Nicole Woods. But the instant chemsitry and monster numbers put up by Woods, Kristen McCarthy and Julia Nearis so far are beyond his wildest dreams.
The line has combined for 18 goals in four games so far, with Woods amassing 23 points, McCarthy close behind with 21 and Nearis scoring a team-best 12 goals to go with 20 points.
“They’re even getting better,” Seabury said. “It’s only been four games so for them to gel this quickly has been a bit of a surprise. The way they’re moving the puck is impressive. Everything has been tape to tape.”
The Panthers (4-0) expect to face their toughest test of the young season today against Winthrop (weather permitting). They return to Salem State on Saturday to face Marblehead, when they’re expecting the second line to be bolstered by the return of Anna O’Neill, who had 29 points as a freshman last year and hasn’t skated in a game this season.
“We know we have to play better defense, especially against the caliber of teams we’re playing in the next few weeks,” Seabury said. “If we don’t, it’s going to come back to bite us.”
The Masconomet girls are hosting an alumni game Saturday at Haverhill Valley Forum at 6:55 p.m.
Kick Saves, a column on North Shore girls hockey, appears in The Salem News every other Thursday during the winter sports season. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.
AREA SCORING LEADERS
Player, School Goals Assists Points
1. Nicole Woods, Beverly 8 15 23
2. Kristen McCarthy, Beverly 8 13 21
3. Julia Nearis, Beverly 12 8 20
4. Brittany Smith, Marblehead 12 2 14
5. Sophia Post, Peabody 7 3 10
6. Alise Murphy, Peabody 5 4 9
6. Leah Heizne, Pingree 4 5 9
8. Jillian Witwicki, Pingree 4 4 8
9. Caitlin McBride, Beverly 1 6 7
10. Rachel Spencer, Beverly 1 4 5
Player, School W-L-T GAA SV% SH
1. Lauren Hennessey, Peabody 1-1-0 1.99 .923 0
2. Cece Purcell, Pingree 4-3-0 2.29 .902 0
3. Madison Jalbert, Beverly 4-0-0 2.59 .821 1
4. Aly Hopkins, Marblehead 3-1-1 2.80 .839 0
*Statistics represent players from The Salem News coverage area only