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Tuesday, May. 21, 2019
Esso Cup girls try and find the right fit
by Randy Pascal

For players, coaches, parents, pretty much the entire entourage of the teams which competed last week at the Esso Cup in Sudbury, the reality of the post-secondary opportunities that lie ahead for a good majority of those competing is something they have lived with for at least the past few years, and often longer than that.

For those on the outside looking in, for the bulk of the casual fans who made their way to the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex, that entire notion of being pursued as a possible recruit might seem incredibly exciting and captivating.

While there is clearly an element of both of these sentiments in play, the notion of trying to make life-altering decisions based on the peer-pressured setting that is elite sports in Canada can add more than a little stress to the mix.

Sudbury co-captain Madison Laberge understands this as well as any of her fellow Esso Cup participants. Garnering national attention while still bantam aged, the 17 year old grade 12 student at Confederation Secondary School eventually backed out of a commitment to the St Lawrence Saints of the NCAA, setting aside a full Division I scholarship in favour of joining the coach Darren Turcotte and the Nipissing Lakers in North Bay this fall.

“I think the toughest part is being honest with yourself, knowing whether you are someone who can stay further away from home or needs to be closer to home, understanding whether they have the right program at that school,” she said. “You really want to be in a program that you enjoy.”

“You have to make sure it's the right decision for you, and only you. You can't worry about it being right for someone else.” By the time that Laberge was named to the roster of Team Ontario Red in October of 2017, the local multi-sport talent had already followed the prevailing wisdom that she was among the chosen few who would certainly be better served taking her game south of the border.

When public perception slots you into that crowd, it's not always easy to break free.

“Honestly, I think I lost more sleep when I was still committed to St Lawrence, knowing that I wasn't super excited to go,” said Laberge. “I was more nervous, and it was still four years away. I kept thinking that I shouldn't be nervous, that I should be excited. The more I thought about my visit to Nipissing in grade eight, the more I thought this was the place that most hit my heart.”

This is not to suggest that the NCAA does not stand as the best option for many of the country's top female hockey players. Rebecca Johnston thoroughly enjoyed her time at Cornell. By all accounts, Ohio State was an excellent fit for Tessa Bonhomme. And more than a dozen of the girls who were in Sudbury recently to contest the national female hockey championship will follow a path similar to the two local Olympians.

“When Clarkson came up, I felt like it was more of a once in a lifetime opportunity for me,” noted Jenna Goodwin, a skilled forward with the St Albert Slash, who is slated to join the Golden Knights in the fall of 2021. It's the same institution where former Lady Wolves' blueliner Corie Jacobson celebrated a pair of NCAA national championships in recent years.

“I'm still thinking about it all of the time,” said the 15 year old grade 10 student. “I know that I have two years to get ready for it. When the time comes, I feel like I will be more ready to go than I am now.”

Yet even within the roster of the three-time champions from Alberta, opinions varied. “I was looking down the road of the NCAA at the start, but then I started to get more competitive in baseball and last summer, I made the national team and competed at worlds,” explained 18 year-old Slash veteran Madison Willan, one of three or four members of her team that have signed on with the University of Alberta Pandas, the U Sports champions in 2018.

“I knew that (baseball) was something that I still wanted to do and didn't want to give it up, so staying at home, for me, was a big factor.” Truth be told, Hockey Canada will suggest that there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to find the right fit, whether that be at home or in the United States, all while stressing the need to emphasize the academic element of the equation, first and foremost.

“The reality is that there are great opportunities on both sides of the border,” noted long-time women's national team coach Melody Davidson, currently serving as Head Scout – National Women's Team program. “For me, it doesn't matter where they play, if they are good enough, we are going to make an effort to follow them.”

At the same time, she is not the least bit naive as to the lure that shines brightly from the land of Uncle Sam. “It's no secret, there is definitely a lot of money in the NCAA schools and the opportunity they provide,” she said. “I also think it's important for families to put aside the prestige of saying I am going away to somewhere else, and really respecting what we have in our own backyard.”

And for those young ladies who are fortunate enough to even be in this conversation, this is only one of the difficult decisions to be made. Named the top forward at the 2019 Esso Cup, Stoney Creek sniper Alyssa Kawa has committed to the Mercyhurst Lakers, also for 2021. The 15 year old has continued to display the same type of upper echelon skill with the Sabres as she did while topping the scoring parade as a member of the Hamilton Huskies “AA” peewee boys team a few years ago.

“I felt that I could get noticed in boys hockey, but my hope was that when I switched to girls hockey, I might really be able to light it up,” said Kawa. “They are two different game styles. The girls are a little more controlled in their play, the boys want to get right at it.”

An under-sized forward even by female standards - “I am the second tiniest kid on my team” - Kawa knows that accepting the offer to her post-secondary home to be in Erie (Pennsylvania) does not mean a shift to cruise control. “Just because you have a scholarship, it doesn't mean that you're done,” she said.

“You still have to keep working. It's something that helps to get you going, a little push from behind to get you started.” The hope, of course, is that it's a push in the right direction. “I liked the population of the school,” said Kawa. “With it being a smaller school, I think I will be able to adapt better and be successful.”

And if the fit is right, then the hours of stressing out over the decisions that are now being made earlier and earlier will hopefully have been worthwhile.

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