HAVERFORD >> Caroline Kelly, Ainsley Shin and Jackie Miller may not be the first girls to go toe-to-toe with male counterparts in a physical high school sport.
The way they acquitted themselves this past season, they certainly won’t be the last.
Episcopal Academy is on to something with this trio, their fearlessness buried along with the resolve of their teammates in a 3-7-1 ice hockey season.
Yes, hockey of the frozen pond kind.
While no one has the girls catapaulting to the NHL anytime soon, they’ve made a difference by earning the respect of teammates with their spirit and will to work through the grind.
“To me, they’re just the same as any guy,” senior Griffin Ernst said. “They play hard. They work hard in practice. They’re on time, everything. They’re a part of the team. And they’re going to make a difference, hopefully, in the future for EA.”
Kelly is a sophomore, Shin and Miller freshmen. They also play for the Junior Flyer girls.
Kelly may be the most daring of the trio, her fire earning her a reputation with opponents as “the defense with the black helmet.”
The second you get caught looking at Kelly’s ponytail is the moment you’re playing catch-up. Hockey fits her like a glove. A formidable field hockey player, she grew up in a neighborhood of boys who played rough and tough — emphasis on rough.
“It was just me and like my brother and all his friends,” Kelly said. “And I wanted to play football because they all played football. I was like, ‘Mom, can I play football?’ And she was like, ‘No, but you can play ice hockey.’ So I started. I played with boys teams for a couple years so when I saw they offered it for high school, I said ‘Why not?’”
Kelly and her female counterparts are anything but averse to the high-speed collisions inherent in the game. While they don’t check the opposition as dynamically as the guys do, they make their presence felt.
Grey Rumain paid the EA girls the ultimate compliment after scoring four goals to lead The Haverford School to an 8-1 win over the Churchmen recently.
“I don’t know who she was tonight but she was a real hard-ass,” Rumain said. “She gave me a couple of shots to the back of the head. She was out there for blood, for sure. And I always love those games. I didn’t get the number but, hey …”
It could have been any of the three girls, including Miller, who won several face-offs against the Fords. That was all the more impressive in that the Fords “rush the faceoff and hit you right off it.
“So you’ve got to be able to move fast and hit the puck as fast as you can,” Miller said. “I love playing on my high school team and being able to hit people. You would get a penalty for it in my girls’ club games. Yeah, you might get hit a few times. But you can hit them back.”
Miller was studying karate when she attended an ice hockey game featuring her cousin. That was the end of the martial arts.
“The next day I switched,” Miller said. “I’ve been playing since I was 8.”
Shin, the tiniest of the EA girls, scored a goal earlier this season. And she selflessly downplayed it. It was a much bigger deal to coach Steve Schuh, a history teacher at Episcopal Academy.
“It was great,” Schuh said. “She can play. They can all play. They all play for the Junior Flyers so they know what they’re doing and they’ve got skills. They do a lot of things very well. They’re just under-sized. As they get bigger they’re certainly going to be a bigger part of the program going forward. The way I look at it is I need all the good players I can find, boy, girl or otherwise. We’ll play the best players, and the guys in the room know that, and there’s never been an issue. We’re all about trying to win hockey games and whoever happens to be out there happens to be out there.”
Kelly, Miller and Shin all agree that competing against the boys has elevated their play. When they return to girls’ competition, they feel faster.
“This makes me a better player,” Shin said. “When I play in my girls games I’m a little faster than some of the players because I’m so used to skating fast with the boys. Am I worried about getting hit by the boys? I mean, I’m not worried about it but my parents are. Sometimes they don’t want me to play in games but I’m not worried about it. I was hurt once … but just once. This is my first year so I wasn’t really expecting to play a lot but it’s a really interesting experience. It’s just really fun.”
On game nights the ladies typically drive to EA games together. They have their own dressing quarters. After that, it’s one-for-all, all-for-one including the team huddle preceding the opening faceoff.
“The only difference,” said Churchmen sophomore CJ Kelly, no relation to Caroline Kelly, “is instead of screaming, ‘Let’s go, boys!,’ we’ve got to go, ‘Let’s go, boys! … And girls!’”
Shin, Miller and Kelly have made fans of opponents, including Germantown Academy hockey coach John Fields, who has a girl on his roster in Maeve Gorman. Fields admires their toughness.
“You’re playing against some strong, fast young men out there,” said Fields, whose powerhouse squad dropped a 5-0 loss on the Churchmen this week. “To have the courage to go out there and give it a go and be competitive like they are? I think it speaks volumes for them. There are girls teams. I don’t know why this hasn’t caught on more down here. The opportunities for good female hockey players to go to Division I and get a great education are available. The girls on EA obviously have a great educational background. You add the sport to that and add that to their packet when they go to apply to colleges and I think it’s going to be helpful.”
It’s safe to say these EA girls are blazing the trail for young females. They’re also role models for young males, at least in the case of Shin.
While Shin skated her shifts against Germantown Academy at the Skatium, one of the younger spectators watching from the glass was asked which team his older brother played for.
“My sister,” fourth-grader Mitchell Shin said. “She’s No. 15.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.