Girls form hockey club, look toward first high school team
ENGLEWOOD — An hour into their two-hour practice at the Mackay Park ice rink, three members of the city high school’s new girls’ ice hockey club took a break.
“I feel like Bambi in that one scene where he’s on a frozen lake and can’t walk,” Dekyi Tsotsong said, clutching her left leg. “My feet hurt so bad.”
These are growing pains.
Tsotsong is one of 11 sophomores from the Academies@Englewood program at Dwight Morrow High School and the school itself attempting to build their burgeoning club into a full-fledged high school team.
They are four months into the endeavor.
Their determined leader is Sarah Yang, a 16-year-old former figure skater who tried hockey several years ago and fell in love.
“I really love the teamwork that goes into it,” Yang said. “It’s really a sport of bonding.”
She briefly honed her skills with the New Jersey Rockets Hockey Club in Bridgewater and then decided last year that she wanted to bring the game home.
“I wanted to do something that would kind of lift our school spirit as well as introduce a sport that a lot of people aren’t familiar with,” Yang said. “Because a rink was accessible to us, I thought, ‘Why not have a girls’ hockey team, where they can enjoy the company of others as well as practice a sport they could really love?’"
The John T. Wright Arena has hosted many hockey teams over its 40-year history, but never one from the high school.
“It’s unique to have an ice rink but no high school team, girls' or boys',” said Ken Katz, manager and program director of the rink.
“We’re home ice for Tenafly and Northern Valley Old Tappan and Frisch, but they’re not Englewood schools. It is sort of strange, but we’ll make it happen.”
The rink is footing the bill for hockey equipment and ice time, giving Yang and the rest of the club free instruction under two figure skating coaches and a hockey coach every Tuesday.
Most of the girls are newcomers not just to hockey, but to ice skating. Some still struggle to keep their balance, but their strides have grown faster, more confident.
“They were crawling on the wall when we started this, but they wanted to do it,” said Toni Singer, the rink’s figure skating director. “They’re really picking up tremendously.”
Coleen Daub, an ice skating instructor at the rink, said she typically tells parents to enroll their children in skating lessons at 5, 6 or 7 years old. Children that young tend to have less fear of falling.
High schoolers know they are going to fall and that it’s going to be painful, Daub said.
But the budding hockey players have been fearless.
“It’s really impressive how far they’ve come,” Daub said.
Klaudia Spahiu can hardly believe it. She had never set foot on ice when Yang, her classmate in geometry, suggested she join her nascent club to learn how to skate.
“I was like, ‘Why not?’ ” Spahiu said. “My parents and friends said, ‘You don’t know how to skate; you can’t do it,’ but it made me want to start skating even more.”
It took a few practices, but Spahiu is no longer clinging to the rink’s guardrail for support. And after watching a few hockey games, she’s getting the hang of the sport, too.
“When we started, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a club. It won’t be an official team,’” Spahiu said. “But I can see progress happening. I see us becoming a good hockey team. I hope this becomes an actual sport next year, because I think it’ll be one of the better teams at Dwight Morrow.”
Richard Suchanski, director of athletics at the school, will make that decision at the end of the school year. If enough girls can skate and comfortably handle a hockey stick, the club will become a junior varsity squad next fall and play eight to 10 games a season, he said.
After a year or two on that schedule, if the strength and interest is still there, the team will transition to a varsity sport, with the approval of the district’s Board of Education.
Yang is up for the challenge. She spent a year just bringing the club to fruition, meeting with Suchanski and other school officials, attending board meetings and working on a district-required petition to support the effort. The petition needed to include at least 20 signatures. Yang got 40.
“Sarah really put this on herself to get this going. She took the initiative, and that was so nice to see,” Suchanski said. “I was actually amazed they got so many signatures the first time around. These students really took a proactive approach.”
Lorenzo Allotta, the girls’ hockey coach, said Yang has managed what he could not. As a student at the Academies@Englewood a decade ago, Allotta tried in vain to drum up support for a hockey program.
“No one wanted to take the plunge,” Allotta said. “I know I couldn’t get the interest together among my classmates, but they were able to do it. Their numbers are getting stronger, and they seem to be really committed.”
The club began with five girls who responded to a Snapchat story Yang posted asking for recruits. They will need to double their ranks to 22 to form a team.
Only one high school in North Jersey, Immaculate Heart Academy, has had enough sustained interest to sponsor an all-girls hockey team. Girls generally have to play with the boys if they want to play for their high school.
Yang is not deterred by the long odds, and she’s proud of what she’s been able to accomplish so far.
“I really love how this was able to grow in such a short amount of time and that these girls got to see why I love hockey and they got to experience such a passionate sport for themselves,” Yang said.
Brianny Alvarenga, the only student in the club from the Dwight Morrow side, joined just a few weeks ago but said she’s hooked, despite the falls and lingering bruises, because of the company she's with.
“My favorite part is bonding with people I never thought I would bond with,” she said. "And the sport itself is really fun."
Published in The Record/NorthJersey.com, February 2018. Photos by Viorel Florescu.