Ice skating is much harder than it looks.
Captain of the obvious statement, right? But there’s no simpler way to sum up exactly why young players are helping girls ice hockey continue to grow on the North Shore.
Peabody High’s co-operative program added players from Higgins Middle School this season, a first for the seven-year-old Tanners. Marblehead, which has had middle school kids from town in the past, has added younger players from co-op partners Swampscott and Manchester-Essex this season as well.
The result is more players and bigger, healthier programs.
“This is the first time I haven’t had any seniors ... and it’s the most kids I’ve ever had on the ice,” said Emily Hudak, who has 83 wins entering her eighth season as the Lady Headers’ coach.
Looking around the area, Masconomet doesn’t have any middle schoolers on its roster, though it does have 12 freshmen. The Chieftains expanded their co-op to include Triton along with North Andover, Hamilton-Wenham and Georgetown, and have a healthy roster of 24 girls.
Beverly, which is in a co-op with Danvers, doesn’t have middle school players but has in the past. Bishop Fenwick, meanwhile, is a stand-alone program with 19 girls in just its second varsity season; 10 of those are sophomores.
On the surface, middle schoolers playing high school sports may seem strange. You wouldn’t see the local Babe Ruth baseball all-star team on the same diamond as the high school junior varsity, much less varsity. You wouldn’t expect a town soccer team to match up with the likes of high school stars Caitlin Harty or Hayley Dowd.
It’s certainly not unprecedented, however. The most famous local example might be Brianne Stepherson, who dominated for the Masconomet girls basketball team for six years and graduated in 1998. More recently, St. John’s Prep sophomore Keith Leavitt played varsity baseball at Manchester-Essex as an eighth grader in 2010.
Why does this work so often in girls hockey? Let’s explore.
Younger players augmenting their town’s teams — and contributing — is commonplace. Masconomet captain Alex Jones took her place between the pipes when she was in eighth grade, and played one of the better state tournament games around here in a goalie’s duel with then-sixth grader Katie Burt of Lynn English in 2009.
“It takes some time for them to realize that high school hockey is a lost faster than youth hockey,” said Peabody coach Larry Minehan. “But the thing you get with middle school kids is they’re usually fast and they can usually skate.”
Skating is the great equalizer. There are tons of athletes that can pick up a lacrosse stick and learn the game quickly because they already know how to run, cut, etc. This is why a new, growing game like girls lacrosse doesn’t need co-op agreements or middle schoolers to stay healthy.
Doing that on skates is infinitely more difficult. Getting players who know how to skate already and wearing their town colors for the school team will build programs.
Its easy to wonder what common ground girls as old as 18 might find with much younger teammates, but that’s the beauty of hockey. Shared experiences sharpening skates and taping sticks on a cold Sunday morning trump differences in musical taste or classroom workload every time.
It’s important to note that the state’s middle school waiver rules specify that schools can’t cut high school players in favor of younger players; this isn’t a situation where programs are bringing in ringers and leaving deserving players behind.
The other main point is that girls hockey is a non-checking game, making it safe for younger — and sometimes smaller — players.
Make no mistake: girls hockey isn’t just for experienced players. Every team has some kids that are learning how to skate, and they’re an integral part of the group. As we said, skating at the level it takes to play hockey is insanely difficult. The character it takes to show up at the rink every day while learning has to be inspiring to teammates. Local coaches are diligent about getting those players ice time when the opportunities arise.
As we enter, amazingly, the sixth season of the Kick Saves girls high school hockey column here in The Salem News, there’s no doubt that players young and old, experienced and inexperienced, will be huge parts of the sport growing both in viability and popularity moving forward.
Peabody’s McVann-O’Keefe rink looks great after last summer’s refurbishment. The boards are clean (and a bit higher), the glass is clear and the lights are bright. As a hockey connoisseur, you can’t ask for much more than that.
One of the big benefits for the Peabody girls is playing in that rink, where they have fairly normal ice time in terms of time and days. Peabody has a number of Saturday afternoon games this season, good for players and fans alike. The Tanners also always make ice between all three periods at home, something that doesn’t always happen at other rinks. That’s a credit to the McCVann-O’Keefe folks.
Quickly recapping the coaching changes this past offseason: Former Fenwick coach Brian Seabury takes over at Beverly while Doug Anderson (former boys coach at Swampscott and Lynn English) is now behind the bench for the Crusaders. Nicole Twomey takes over for Andrew Boepple at Masconomet, with Boepple moving to an assistant’s role on the Masco boys team. Twomey was the top assistant for the Chieftains last season and played at UNH.
Pingree will be going at it with one goaltender this year: capable senior Ally Heffron. A captain from Lynnfield, Heffron won 11 games for the Highlanders over the last two seasons with five shutouts and 485 saves along the way.
Heffron spent the last two years splitting time with Lindsay O’Connell, a Danvers native who has moved on to the Tilton School.
For local fans watching the prep school scene, there are several goalies with North Shore roots to keep an eye on. Along with O’Connell, Marblehead native Molly Depew already has two wins for Brooks including a 31-save, overtime decision over BB&N.
Fellow Marblehead native Brianna Laing, who played in last year’s Women’s World Junior Championships and is committed to Harvard, is back between the pipes for Nobles & Greenough, one of the top teams in New England.
Speaking of Nobles, Lexie Laing was recently named to the Women’s World Junior Championship roster for 2013. She’ll join Team USA in Finland for the competition from Dec. 29-Jan 5.
Bishop Fenwick nearly picked up its first varsity win last weekend, falling at Cape Cod Tech, 3-2. Freshman Gabby Dotolo netted both goals for the Crusaders, who hit the ice again Sunday morning against Shawsheen.
Kick Saves, a column on North Shore girls hockey, appears in The Salem News every other Thursday during the winter season. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.