Emma O’Donovan is 23 points shy of 100 in her prolific high school hockey career at Belmont High.
With six goals and an assist through three games — including a goal in a 2-2 tie with Winchester on Wednesday — and nine games remaining in this pandemic-forced abbreviated season, the senior first-line center is on pace to reach the milestone.
But her quest, and consistent stellar play, are more impressive when understanding her journey. O’Donovan was sidelined her sophomore season and has since undergone six surgeries to address a rare condition in her left ankle.
On Oct. 19, 2018, after playing in a field hockey game against Middlesex League rival Winchester, O’Donovan was taken to Boston Children’s Hospital with concerns about her ankle. She was diagnosed with a sprain and put on crutches for six weeks. But an MRI that December revealed something ominous.
Inside the bone was an aneurysmal bone cyst. It’s a benign, blood-filled tumor that feeds off the body’s vascular system. O’Donovan underwent a five-hour surgery to remove the cyst. A bone graft from a cadaver filled in the space occupied by the tumor. She was in a cast until May 2019.
“I definitely had high hopes after my freshman season,” said O’Donovan, who tallied 17 goals and 13 assists in her first varsity season. “We had a really good season … not having a sophomore year was kind of tough because that’s a prime recruiting year.
“Basically, it was a matter of keeping myself motivated and getting ready to go back for next season.”
O’Donovan returned to the ice as a junior and scored 30 goals to go with 10 assists, but she played through pain. Three smaller tumors developed around the ankle bone and she underwent five more surgeries between May 2019-July 2020. Three procedures used sclerotherapy, a procedure in which a solution is injected into the blood vessels to make them shrink. The final two used cryotherapy ablation, which freezes the tumors until they calcify.
“On an X-ray, you can see a tiny hole going straight through my ankle bone,” O’Donovan said.
The tumors have not grown back. O’Donovan now has an MRI every 3-6 months to monitor the ankle; her left skate is a size and a half larger than her right to accommodate any swelling. She has not lost a step since regaining her strength. That doesn’t surprise Belmont coach Ken Murphy. He wanted to call her up to the varsity squad as an eighth-grader, but Belmont was in its second year after ending its co-op with Watertown, and couldn’t get a waiver to call up eighth-graders from junior varsity.
“Her skating ability was better than average for sure,” said Murphy. “She knew where to be, she knew how to set plays up. It’s hard to explain. She’s just one of those players who has the canny ability to find that back of the net. She can shoot from off angles. Some kids shoot at the goalie right at the chest, but she can just find the back of the net.”
O’Donovan centers the top line with senior Samantha Rocci and sophomore Lily Duffy. The trio combined for seven of Belmont’s eight goals through its first two games.
“They’re together for the first time this year, but they’re coming together well,” said Murphy. “Between the three of them, they kind of bring all the dynamics of what they want. Lily is very fast, Sam is gritty in the corners, and Emma brings the finesse on the line,” Murphy said.
“Despite [O’Donovan] having the time off from all those surgeries, she’s really fluid. She has a lot of great ideas, great movement, great passes,” said Rocci.
Belmont is not guaranteed to play all of its scheduled games. Multiple schools have put their athletic programs and extracurriculars on pause because of rising COVID-19 numbers.
For O’Donovan, when every point counts, every game matters, especially when you’re making up for lost time. Scoring 100 points would be the ultimate vindication and a testament to her resilience.
That’s nothing new for O’Donovan, though. She’s been plenty resilient long before an unforeseen setback threatened to limit her time on the ice.
“It kind of shows that this was all kind of worth it,” O’Donovan said. “The fact that I was still able to achieve that, it shows that the two years of work and rehabbing that I put in has paid off.”
▪ Ray Monroe, in his second year as coach of the Billerica/Chelmsford/Lowell co-op, is also an assistant coach for the Becker College women’s hockey team. However, amid the pandemic, he’s taken a step back from his duties with the Hawks, who have no scheduled games this winter. “Once high school season started, I kind of took a step back (from Becker), with the exposure risk and all that,” Monroe said. “It’s not worth being on two squads.”
▪ On Tuesday night, Boston Bruins president Cam Neely presented the Boston Bruins-MIAA Sportsmanship Awards for the 2019-20 season virtually. Nine girls were honored, including seven who graduated last spring: Meg Aldrich (Canton), Deanna Bosco (North Andover), Lauren Boyd (Martha’s Vineyard), Colleen Goonan (Boston Latin), Katie Guden (Belmont), Avery Holloway (Duxbury), and Erinn Wagner (Norwood). Christine Landry, now a senior at Notre Dame (Hingham), and McKenna Wech, now a junior at St. Joseph Prep, were also honored.
▪ An independent program no more, the Bishop Fenwick girls’ team is a fulltime member of the Catholic Central League this season. “We’re a relatively young program, it took us a while to build up to get to the point where we’re able to compete,” second-year head coach John Kasle said. Fenwick began competing in girls’ hockey in 2010-11. The Crusaders, who have qualified for the state tournament in each of the last three seasons, are off to a 2-1 start this year with wins over Archbishop Williams and fellow league-newcomer Bishop Stang and a loss against Matignon.
▪ Canton has moved back across town to a refurbished Metropolis Skating Rink from the Canton Ice House. The Bulldogs vacated Metropolis, also known as Ponkapoag, after a snowstorm in the winter of 2014-15 caused part of its roof to cave in. Back in their old haunt, the girls’ team skated to a 4-0 victory over Franklin in its opener last week, with sophomore Audrey Koen scoring twice.
Correspondent Jake Levin also contributed.