By Bill Kirk
---- — It was almost the season that wasn’t.
The fledgling Andover High School girls junior varsity ice hockey team, which ran on vapors last year, was out of gas at the start of this season. Not enough girls wanted to play, leading Athletic Director Don Doucette to tell varsity coach Liz Keady that there would be no team.
But second-year coach Keady, who played for Princeton University in New Jersey and the U.S. National Team, wasn’t prepared to accept defeat.
“He (Doucette) called the day we were making cuts to the varsity team,” she said. “He said, ‘Liz, you have to accept that there’s not a demand for a JV team.’”
Keady knew better.
“I said, ‘Oh yes there is,’” she recalled recently. “I was adamant we have a (JV) team.”
Keady said when she originally interviewed for the job, she was promised she would be in charge of a program that included both JV and varsity girls teams. But that promise got harder and harder for the administration to keep once her inaugural season in Andover got under way, she said.
Last year, the school couldn’t support a JV team, so the Andover Hockey Association stepped in and ran it.
Then this year, just as Keady was set to cut 14 girls from varsity to create the first, school-sponsored JV team in Andover history, she learned the JV squad was two short of the necessary 16 players for a full roster.
Keady said she didn’t want to be the coach to tell potential JV skaters that their high school hockey playing days were over.
“I didn’t want to be the one to end their careers prematurely,” she said.
So when Doucette told her she had a week to come up with extra players to put a JV team on the ice, Keady rallied the troops. She went to her players, including varsity tri-captain Laura Ritzer and JV captains Laura Morissette and Abby Huntress, and asked them to find some more kids to play.
“The next day, we made an announcement (over the school loudspeakers) for girls to come and play,” said Morissette, a 17-year-old junior who plays center forward and right wing. “We told all our friends, ‘Come to the rink and have fun.’”
The word also went out via text message, Facebook, Twitter and every other conceivable form of communication.
The result was nothing less than astounding.
“We got one kid on the first day, two kids on the second day and by the end of the second night, we had 10 more,” Keady said. “By the end of the week, we had 62 kids in the program.”
Now, there are enough girls for a JV game team and a JV practice squad, as they call it.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
What happened next “was overwhelming and humbling,” Keady said.
As word spread across town that 40 new skaters needed gear, the community rallied.
Keady said that over a couple of nights, people brought pads, skates, sticks, helmets, socks and all the rest to the rink at Phillips Academy, where the team plays.
It’s not only that the girls needed gear, they needed to know how to put it on, too.
Freshman goalie Katie Holden, 15, had never laced up skates, much less put on goalie pads. Nick Scarpa, a goalie on the Andover High boys team, stepped in to help.
“The call was put out for donations, and (Scarpa) donated almost everything he had,” said Holden’s mother, Janice, a former goalie herself with Phillips Academy’s first girls team back in the ‘70s and then at Brown University in Rhode Island.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Katie Holden said. “But it’s really fun to be part of a team.”
Holden isn’t the only first-time skater on the ice. The team has two, distinct squads: the JV game team made up of girls who were already going to make the roster along with a few new additions, and the practice squad, made up mostly of newcomers. There are first-time skaters, a bunch of former figure skaters, a few pond-skating veterans and lots of really good athletes with big hearts and even bigger smiles.
During a recent evening practice, some of the roughly 40 skaters dashed up and down the ice, while others looked just a few steps up from crate-skating.
One of those was Meredith Van Antwerp, 15, a sophomore on the practice squad.
Joining the JV team was her first experience on skates, she said.
“I found out they didn’t have enough people and I wanted to try something new,” she said. “I love it. I’m a lot better than when I first started. I couldn’t even skate.”
Keady said the improvement has been dramatic.
“We have some pretty athletic kids here,” she said as she surveyed the ice, watching the JV players of varying levels skate past.
Every time someone fell — and it seemed to happen a lot — the players would all bang their sticks on the ice as encouragement for their teammate to get back up and keep going.
“I get jacked up when they fall,” Keady said, smiling. “They have to learn, if they fall, they’ll be fine. Once you’re comfortable with falling, you are less tentative about bending your knees and going lower.”
Keady said the teammates and coaching staff — including JV head coach Ed Oteri — have been “so supportive of each other.”
Parents have been supportive, too.
Andrew Goldberg, whose 16-year-old daughter, Devon, is a first-time skater, said the whole program deserves credit for a job well-done.
“You don’t typically try to outfit a hockey team from foot to head,” said Goldberg, who was dropping his daughter off at the rink for practice. “They had so many extra players, but they outfitted all of them.”
He said that was one of the reasons his daughter decided to play. That, and the fact that there wouldn’t be any cuts, at least not this year.
“They’re all pumped and they’re adventurous,” he said of the newcomers on the JV team. “It’s been completely mind-boggling.”