Every Monday afternoon during the hockey season, the St. Mary’s of Lynn girls’ squad proceeds to the chapel basement for a plyometric workout involving planks, squats, and medicine ball exercises.
Since 2005 — when coach Frank Pagliuca arrived — this regimen is repeated twice weekly to help players build endurance for the sport’s physically grueling demands. While its implementation reflects a program’s desire to outwork its competitors as more and more high schools field girls’ teams, completing the routine also reveals a deep devotion many players possess for a game they started playing almost before they can remember.
“Just looking at high school girls’ hockey in Massachusetts, I think the thing that has been evident to me is that the popularity has really increased,” said Pagliuca. “We’re at the point now where we have well over, I believe, 60-plus teams that are playing under the MIAA umbrella. More towns are adding teams or [forming co-op programs] with other teams to give girls the opportunity to play high school hockey.”
The increased interest has led to a spike in organized girls-only youth leagues, something that has significantly strengthened competition for the three-time defending state champions (2008-2010).
“I think it’s made teams — in terms of their overall structure — deeper,” explained Pagliuca. “In the past you’d only really have one or two top players. Now you have teams with a lot more depth in terms of their overall numbers and the quality of players.”
Current 11th- and 12th-graders who progressed through these newfound youth ranks — like St. Mary’s senior forward Alison Butler, the Globe’s reigning Division 1 Girls’ Player of the Year — are on the verge of reaping the rewards they will have earned from being introduced to hockey so early in their lives.
“I think it [gave] girls an opportunity to play where they [felt] comfortable,” said Pagliuca about such programs. “Some girls maybe [didn’t] feel comfortable playing with boys at a young age.”
Three years after learning to skate at age 3, she decided to start playing hockey. Like most towns, the only readily available organized activities in Danvers were for boys. So at 6 years old, Butler registered.
It was not until a few years later when Butler turned 8 that a girls’ league was started. She joined, but continued competing against boys. The variations between both styles were immediately apparent.
“It was different because the boys were a lot rougher,” recalled Butler. “With the girls, it was a lot more skill. I liked the girls a lot better because I was playing with all girls and not all boys.
“I realized I could play a lot better with the girls and it felt like I knew a little more about the game.”
As Butler continued to unearth her skill and realize her potential, another new opportunity arose.
Her younger brother, Chris, who also now plays at St. Mary’s, joined the Middlesex Islanders club team when he was 9. Soon after that, the family learned about a new girls’ program under the organization’s umbrella. At 10, Butler tried out and made the squad. It was an experience that eventually led her to St. Mary’s.
“I had a lot of kids from St. Mary’s who played on my Islanders team when I was in eighth grade,” she explained. “I always knew about the school because I was friends with a couple players. I really wanted to [come here] because they have a great program for girls’ hockey.”
Since arriving, Butler has excelled. She has collected 137 career points entering this season, and stands poised for a big senior year. With aspirations of playing Division 3 hockey — she would be the 16th St. Mary’s graduate to play collegiately — Butler is focused on helping her team recapture a state championship that has eluded St. Mary’s the past two years. The Spartans (21-4-1) lost in last year’s final, 3-1, to Arlington Catholic.
She is also focused on individually improving in areas she knows are vital to succeeding at the next level.
“It’s a lot faster and you need to be a lot stronger on your feet and with the puck, and a lot smarter to make quicker decisions,” explained the 17-year-old Butler.
It’s a transition that her coach knows she’ll be able to handle.
“I think she’s going to be an impact player for sure in college, just because of her overall game and what she brings [with] her intellect,” said Pagliuca, who has Butler centering the first line that also includes senior left wing Kaleigh Finigan and junior right wing Jacquelyn Murphy. “I think she can fit into any kind of system that a college coach is running.
“She analyzes and reads the game to the point where she knows, she can anticipate when something is going to happen before it happens. I really look at her and appreciate her ability to understand responsibility. What she has to do in certain situations; her on-ice game management is tremendous. She not only understands what she should be doing, but also what those around her should be doing.”
Until her goal is realized, Butler continues to take advantage of those opportunities that find her. She has been a faithful “Body by Boyle” enrollee, and she twice completed a new summer skating program that her Islanders coach started two years ago.
From Feb. 19 to 21, Hingham will host a tournament comprising Duxbury, Acton-Boxborough, Arlington, Arlington Catholic, Woburn, Lexington, and St. Mary’s. The intent is to showcase the state’s top talents, like Butler, and further raise the sport’s profile.
It also represents another step to ensure that girls’ hockey players receive the same treatment as their male counterparts, something Butler readily acknowledges was never an issue.
“We both played Danvers hockey, then we went on and played club hockey, and now we both play at St. Mary’s,” she explained. “I’ve done everything pretty much the same as him, except he plays for the boys’ teams and I play for the girls.”
It’s a good thing Butler gave skating one more shot a number of years ago.