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Hockey girls just want to have fun

Never one to shy away from an adventure, Caitlin Williams surprised almost everyone when she decided to lace up skates and take to the ice as a member of Ashland High's coed varsity hockey team last winter.

"I played softball for a very long time and I wanted a change," she recalled. "I wanted to go be rough and tough with the boys. I came out here just trying something new and I had a blast. It was the best decision ever."

Williams, now one of the team's alternate captains, enjoyed her first season on the ice so much, she recruited other girls to give the sport a try.

"I was going to be the only girl, so I went to my softball team and said 'somebody come out with me.'"

This season, Ashland has five girls on its 16-person roster. Their athletic backgrounds include soccer, softball, basketball, water polo, figure skating and roller hockey.

"For the majority of them, this is a brand new sport," Grizzlies' coach Tom Harrison said. "It would be devastating to the growth of the sport here in the Valley if we didn't accept new players. One of my goals is to continue to grow the sport here."

Girls playing hockey is, of course, nothing new. Women's hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1998 and the NCAA and International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) conduct annual national and world championships, respectively. However, in those competitions, body checking is banned. Not so in the coed Southern Oregon League.

There are 13 girls currently playing for the six SOL schools. No school has more than Ashland.

"Once you're out there, you're another one of the boys," said sophomore Kami Dumont, who had done roller figure skating before switching to the ice this winter. "You're going to get rammed into the boards. It's been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, but I enjoy the challenge a lot."

Junior Carley Santee, who earned All-State honors as a goalie for AHS' state championship water polo team in the fall, switched from basketball to hockey this winter. Like Williams, Santee plays on Ashland's softball team in the spring.

"It's just so different," she said. "There's no drama. It's just gal and guy differences. When you get on the ice, there's no drama about what happened today or last week or who doesn't like who or whatever. We're playing for our team. In softball, the girls are playing for their own recognition. They're playing for themselves. In hockey, we want to do our best for the team."

Blending newcomers of any gender into a cohesive unit with more advanced skaters such as returning SOL Most Outstanding Player Casey Skolnik poses a unique challenge.

"One of the biggest challenges has been dealing with the disparity in skill levels," Harrison said. "You have five or six kids that skate at a really high level and another five or so that are true beginners."

Harrison spends a considerable amount of his coaching time patiently teaching the girls the basic disciplines of stick-handling, passing, shooting and positioning.

"The key is making sure they're aware of where they are on the ice," he said. "These are young ladies who are playing checking hockey with kids who are going a lot faster with a lot more skill."

They have, however, demonstrated noticeable progress. Heading into today's championship rematch with South Medford at The RRRink in Medford, Williams, Santee and Dumont each have an assist for the undefeated Grizzlies (4-0-0).

If learning the sport has been a challenge, fitting in with their teammates seemed to be the easy part.

"They just think of you as another player," Dumont said.

Standing just five feet tall, Ami Cooper still looks the part of the figure skater, which she was from the age of 12. But that appearance hides an aggressiveness waiting to be released.

"In hockey, you have to be a lot more aggressive," she said. "It is a big change from twirling and spinning. I'm going to get myself out there and knock someone over."

The latest member of the team is junior Ella Riley-Adams, who played soccer during the fall and drew her love for hockey from the 1990s Disney film The Mighty Ducks (which also spawned the NHL team of the same name.)

"All these skaters are amazing," she said. "To be competing with people like them is scary. The best part is that everybody is encouraging."

"As a coach, it's a thrill to watch them get better and keep a smile on their face," Harrison said.