St. Mary's Ryken Makes History with Girls Ice Hockey Team
Published by The BayNet on January 1, 2019 By Zach Hill
St. Mary's Ryken Makes History with Girls Ice Hockey Team
Whether the school is known for its rigorous academics or its competitive athletics, St. Mary's Ryken High School (SMR) has become a Southern Maryland powerhouse for the rapidly growing sport of ice hockey. However, what the school has most recently offered to students is an opportunity never before mentioned in the southern tip of the state—an all girls ice hockey team.
Girls Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations at SMR Chris Palombi is no stranger to the sport of ice hockey as he has successfully transformed the school's entire ice hockey program over his tenure. His 11 years of coaching and his "passion for the sport" made him the perfect candidate to develop a girls team alongside the now well-established varsity and JV teams.
In an interview with TheBayNet.com, Palombi discussed all of the intricacies and hurdles he has faced in trying to establish an all-girls team in a place people would least expect it.
The first thing that people might not expect is the extraordinary interest that has brought a number of players onto the ice. With a team of 23 girls, including 20 newcomers to the sport, it seemed that students came out of the woodwork to be a part of the historic all-girls team. Palombi believes that the "Capitals' run for the Stanley Cup last Spring" has played a key part in boosting the sport's popularity locally.
"We had a high interest of female students wishing to be team managers for the varsity and JV ice hockey teams," Palombi explained. "After having about 15 [plus] emails from individual female students inquiring about being a manager, I just started asking them, "Would you be interested in playing ice hockey?" With an astonishingly positive number of responses that he received from that simple question, plus a few emails from SMR Principal Dr. Rick Wood to the near 700 member student body, the team was born.
However, there were still some major obstacles that the team would face. Anyone who knows anything about ice hockey in Southern Maryland, knows that it is quite an expensive hobby. From the costs of acquiring gear, to the cost of reserving the limited ice time, to the cost of traveling to the nearest ice rink in Waldorf for practices and home games— there were still a number of challenges leading up to the team's first game Dec. 21.
To solve the problem of having each player spend hundreds of dollars on gear, Palombi obtained grants from a Washington Capital's affiliate warehouse in Silver Spring, providing players with everything from helmets to skates. To combat the problem of limited ice time, the team has often found itself sharing ice time with SMR varsity of JV teams. Ice time reservations are often made up to a year in advance, which made finding time slots to practice and play games very difficult this late in the season.
However, the biggest problem that faces not only this team, but every Southern Maryland ice hockey team is the lack of available ice. Having to drive hours to and from each practice and game can be a major deterrent from growing the sport locally. When asked if Southern Maryland could support having an ice rink, Palombi was confident when saying "absolutely" and arguing possibly being able to support more than that.
"[According to USA Hockey,] the state of Maryland has shown the biggest growth of new participants of playing ice hockey over the past 10 years, [more] than any other state," Palombi said. "In the Southern Maryland area, the largest growth has been right here in St. Mary's County. And it's not just younger kids, it's many adults who play as well. We need another ice facility in the Southern Maryland area."
Nonetheless, the 23 girls have managed to find some time to practice on-ice at the Capital Clubhouse in Waldorf, off-ice at the Leonard Hall Recreation Center, and were prepared to "hold their own" in their first ever game against the Archbishop Spalding Cavaliers of Severn.
With lack of on-ice practices and so many new players, anybody would have expected a blowout loss. But that wasn't the tale of this game. By the end of the first period, the Ryken Knights were only down 3-2, after Captain Robyn Strauss and Maelia Perham were both able to find the back of the net. Strauss would manage to score again in the second period, but that wouldn't be enough to offset the four tallies that Spalding would put up, bringing the scoring differential up 7-3. Additionally, Alternate Captain Gracen Ptack would record the team's first ever penalty for roughing.
The third period would be the best one the Knights would play, outscoring the Cavaliers 2-1. Perham would score her second goal and Strauss would complete her hat trick for the evening. However, that wouldn't be enough to put the Knights on top, with the final score 8-5.
Following the game's conclusion, Palombi talked about how happy he was despite the result. "I think it went very well. It is incredible to see the passion they have developed for the game and how much their skills have improved. In my 11 years coaching, I haven't seen that kind of excitement on the bench. The atmosphere on the bench was very different and I wasn't expecting that in the first game."
However, what onlookers might have seen as having a good time, actually was more competitive for the girls. Senior and Alternate Captain Connie Benson went so far as to say this first game was "intense." Although the odds were stacked against them, Benson remained optimistic with the outcome. "My job is being positive and building everyone up so we can improve. We wanted to win and we tried our best, it just didn't come out in our favor."
In order for players to improve, they need the appropriate resources to enhance their abilities. Although ice availability is currently slim for all teams, further expansion of the sport is still hopeful with such significant popularity trends. The possibility of bringing an ice rink into Southern Maryland is fully plausible, even though investment costs according to Palombi would be in the range of at least $6 million.
The Knight's next game is set for Jan. 10 against the Bryn Mawr School in Abingdon, MD.