Amherst skater from Burlington
hits her stride on defense
Caitlyn Ryan was never fond of her ability to skate. She is the first to call her strides ugly, while a few of her previous coaches have called her lazy.
But Jeff Matthews , the women’s hockey coach at Amherst College, saw something quite different.
The first time he saw Ryan skate, she was playing for the East Coast Wizards in the Assabet Valley tournament during her senior year at Cushing Academy. And he could not help but draw comparisons to Hull native Eric Healey , who was his All-American teammate at RPI, who had a brief stint with the Boston Bruins.
“When I saw her play the first time, we all fell in love with her skating,” Matthews said of the freshman defenseman from Burlington. “She has a nice glide and stride. Most coaches don’t know how to teach that component, and it’s the biggest thing we look for.
“I told my assistant she reminded me of Eric, and his stick skills and the efficiency of the stride. She’s not that tall, but she looks huge on the ice.”
The reality is that Ryan, who had been skating since she was 4 and had attended hockey camps every summer she could remember, covered the ice so efficiently it just looked lazy, when really, it was effortless.
From that moment, Matthews was confident that the 5-foot-6-inch Ryan would be a valuable addition to the Lord Jeffs’ defensive unit.
Ryan has been exactly that, proving to be a reliable defender in her freshman campaign, while skating on the top pairing with senior captain Hayley Opperman .
“In any sport, you need to play great defense and our No. 1 goal is to be a shutdown team,” Matthews said. “She’s been able to achieve that level of play. In our zone, she contains well and she’s good with her stick, using it as a tool in a smart way.”
Ryan has proved to be a shutdown defender, helping Amherst (10-5-3, 6-2-2) to occupy the third spot in the New England Small College Athletic Conference standings. As of Thursday, the Jeffs allowed just 1.67 goals per game, which ranked second in the conference.
The 18-year-old has been so efficient on defense that Matthews added her to the penalty kill, and her ability to see the ice and maintain control of the puck has landed her on the power play.
Through 18 games, Ryan has facilitated Amherst’s offense with a team-leading 11 assists.
“At Cushing I think I scored maybe one or two goals,” Ryan said. “I was never an offensive-minded player.”
Although Ryan is not a big scorer, she has showed an innate ability to stay one step ahead of the next play, which has allowed her to set her teammates up for open shots. She played forward for two years at Cushing Academy before moving back to defense, which she said has helped her anticipate where plays will unfold from the blue line.
“It’s a hockey sense you gain,” Ryan said. “You can see where one play will lead to the next. Playing with my Amherst teammates, I’ve gotten to know their playing styles, and if they shoot with their left or right hand.”
Ryan has played a lot of minutes and assumed a lot of responsibilities for a freshman, something Matthews expected, as the Jeffs needed a boost at the position after graduating Geneva Lloyd, one of the program’s best blue-liners.
In four seasons, Lloyd scored 44 goals and tallied 71 assists for 115 points, which ranked fifth in program history.
It is difficult to replace a player of Lloyd’s caliber, but Matthews was confident in Ryan’s ability to step into a top role as a defenseman.
“That’s what she wanted to hear,” Matthews said. “She wanted that challenge and that opportunity.”
Although it took some time for Ryan to adjust to the level of play in the NESCAC, Matthews said he thought pairing her with the team captain would help her settle in.
According to Ryan, she was intimidated at first, but quickly followed Opperman’s lead.
“I didn’t want to mess up,” Ryan said. “She’s somebody I look up to and admire and I’m grateful to be her partner. I’ve never played with a more charismatic player, and you can feel her presence on the ice.
“I’ve learned how to talk and communicate better, and learn when I need to step up and take control when things aren’t getting done.”
Now that Ryan is comfortable, she has also been able to expand on her shot, particularly her one-timer on the power play. As Matthews sees it, Ryan’s career is just beginning to blossom.
“All we want her to do is get better from game to game and year to year,” Matthews said. “We see where we are now; we have a lot of returners and want to be a dominant team in the NESCAC. With her, it’s just becoming even more of a force than she is now.”
While most athletes will be in the thick of the spring sporting season in April, members of the Essex County Youth Rugby Bulldogs U19 team will travel to London to compete against elite English High School clubs.
The upcoming trip highlights the booming growth of the Essex County Youth Rugby club, which also announced the launch of a girls’ high school team. In addition to the boys’ and girls’ high school teams, the Bulldogs also have a U15, U12, and U9 club.
The Bulldogs, who practice at Amesbury Sports Park and Pipestave Hill in West Newbury, play high school teams from Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, while the girls will compete against Algonquin, Berkshire, Lincoln-Sudbury, Newton South, North Quincy, and Worcester high schools, as well as other club teams.
The program, founded in 2009 with just 13 players, has quickly developed into one of the top rugby programs in New England.
plans for college
On Wednesday’s National Signing Day, a number of area athletes signed their national letters of intent. Saugus resident James Atkins , who played at Blair Academy in New Jersey, committed to the University of Connecticut. Atkins, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman, led Blair to the Mid-Atlantic Prep League title. Holy Cross inked three recruits from the area, including defensive back Mike McCaffrey (Winchester/Buckingham, Browne & Nichols), wide receiver Matt Millett (Marblehead), and offensive lineman Charlie Steel (Melrose).Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com.