How an MIAA rule has helped middle schoolers excel on the ice for varsity squads
In the rare moments of downtime, before school, or between practices for their two club hockey teams, Ava and Kayla McGaffigan were always skating on their backyard rink at their East Dennis home.
The twins watched as their older sister, Anna (Class of 2018) donned the green and white jersey as a member of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional girls’ hockey team, later joined by some of their older Cape Cod Sharks teammates. The twins — impatiently — continued working toward their chance to play at the high school level.
It finally came last season — and it didn’t come quietly. Skating for the varsity as eighth graders, the twins combined for 50-plus points for a squad that advanced to the Division 2 quarterfinals, the most successful run in program history.
This season, the McGaffigans have been even better: Ava has a team-leading 30 points on 14 goals and 16 assists, and Kayla has produced 17 goals and nine assists.
“They’re special,” said D-Y coach John Shaw. “They play hockey the way it should be played — with their heads up. They pass. They’re very good hockey players.”
The McGaffigans did not expect to make such an immediate impact for the Dolphins (9-2), ranked ninth in this week’s Globe Top 20. But they are not the only underclassmen that are impact players.
There are no seniors skating for 10th-ranked Braintree (9-2). And No. 8 Notre Dame-Hingham (9-2) has been backstopped by eighth-grader Lily Prendergast, who has yielded just 14 goals. Eighth-grader Sam Taber is the leading scorer for top-ranked Austin Prep (10-0), continuing to fill into the role she carved out for herself last year as a seventh-grader (21 points).
“I try as hard as I can both years,” Taber said. “I just keep putting effort into both my seasons so far.”
Taber, who started playing youth hockey in Tewksbury at age 6 and plays with the North Shore Vipers, is one of 14 underclassmen on the AP team.
Taber is the only eighth grader, but seventh grader Monique Lyons (1 goal, 4 assists) is the youngest player on the roster.
“The older girls help the younger girls a lot, with drills and motivation to just do your best,” Taber said. “They really do show good leadership. I support the younger ones, as does everyone else.”
The McGaffigans and Taber have taken advantage of the ability to play varsity hockey prior to their freshman year.
Citing low numbers, Lincoln-Sudbury coach Paul Hardy applies for a middle level waiver through the MIAA, which allows teams to add middle school students on a case-by-case basis.
Sophie Ensley, now a freshman at Lincoln-Sudbury, joined her school’s varsity team while in middle school.
“It was a little sad when the season ended,” Ensley said. “I knew I wasn’t going to see any of them, that I could only see them for that season. We’re closer now. I get to see them more often.”
As a freshman, Ensley is leading the Warriors (8-4-1) with 19 goals and seven assists after a 30-18—48 line as an eighth grader.
“She’s one of the younger kids on the team, but even the upperclassmen forget what grade level she is because of how much we rely on her,” said L-S coach Paul Hardy. “She fits in well.”
For the players dominating at the high school level before they’re actually in ninth grade, it’s difficult to imagine what might lie ahead.
Methuen/Tewksbury senior Carolyn Curley got her start on the Red Rangers as a seventh grader. She is now in her sixth year on the team.
“If I didn’t start in seventh grade, I don’t think I’d be as good,” Curley said. “Playing with people that are older than you and better than you makes you better.
“I’m very dedicated to the team. It was a major part of my childhood.”
To coaches, the heavy impact of youth on today’s high school game is a sign of positive growth for girls’ hockey.
“The girls game has evolved tremendously,” said Austin Prep coach Stephanie Wood . “We’re seeing younger, talented players, and recruiting kids a lot younger these days.”
“Every so often I’ll get an e-mail from an eighth-grade parent wondering whether their child should come out for the team,” Hardy said.
“I’ve had a lot of success with eighth graders. We try to get a competitive team. If there’s a highly skilled eighth grader, she’s going to play.”
But to the McGaffigans, a freshman-heavy roster means sticking together and leading a legacy.
“As the years progress we’ll get a lot better,” Kayla McGaffigan said. “The girls who are in our grade now, I don’t think anybody will be quitting or leaving. We’ll all move on together.”
“The more that we progress and get better at the game and play better teams and win more games, I feel like younger girls are going to find that pretty cool,” agreed her sister, Ava. “They’ll want to play for D-Y girls hockey.”
■ Off to an 11-0-1 start after Monday’s 7-2 win over Marshfield, Duxbury has received stellar play from its senior goaltending tandem of Erin Matthews and Sue Bird. For the third straight season, the two have evenly split playing time in the battle for late-season minutes. The Dragons have allowed only 14 goals, with each netminder posting sub-1 goals against averages.
“I feel like splitting games just builds up our chemistry even more because we both practice to our fullest,” said Bird. “Throughout the season we keep pushing each other, knowing that we support each other along the way.”
Added Matthews, “I think it’s good, since it’s our senior year, that we get to split it. It’s even for both of us so neither of us feel like we’re not getting playing time.”
“They’ve been playing well and I think they’re having fun,” said Duxbury coach Paul Reissfelder. “We’re a team here and our main goal is to win. The competition is great and if they both keep the puck out of the net, it’s good.”
■ Notre Dame Academy first-year coach John Findley faced a familiar foe when the Cougars took on crosstown rival Hingham in the Hingham Cup: his twin brother, Tom, head coach of the Harborwomen. “We think so much alike. We probably have the same ideas, the same focus,” John said. Senior Alexa Graziano notched a goal and an assist, and senior Kelly Morrissey and junior Kelsey Stewart added goals to help the ninth-ranked Cougars (9-2-0) to a 3-1 win over Hingham.
■ Members of the Boston Latin team volunteered at the Bruins-Canadiens game last Thursday night, selling 50/50 raffle tickets with the Boston Bruins Foundation to benefit the Thomas E. Smith Foundation.
Smith, a 2008 Pingree graduate from Swampscott, was paralyzed on two separate occasions while playing hockey for the Boston Bulldogs and a third due to a car accident. His foundation aims to better the lives of those living with paralysis through financial and emotional support.
The Wolfpack girls helped raise over $27,000, according to coach Tom McGrath , who developed a friendship with Smith five years ago through Massachusetts Hockey.
“We had no practice, and I saw [Smith] posted that he was looking for volunteers,” McGrath said. “They all jumped at the opportunity. They did a good job.”
Games to Watch
Wednesday, Franklin at Westwood (at Canton IceHouse. 4 p.m.) — The unbeaten Panthers face a road test against a resilient Westwood team that is battling injuries.
Wednesday, Archbishop Williams at Austin Prep (at Breakaway Ice Center, 7:20 p.m.) — After a weekend loss to St. Mary’s, the Bishops are looking to get back on track against top-ranked Austin Prep.
Wednesday, Needham at Walpole (at Rodman Arena, 8 p.m.) — Two Bay State Conference rivals square off in a Top 20 matchup that could see the losing team drop out of a tight bottom half in the poll.
Saturday, Shrewsbury at Methuen/Tewksbury (at Methuen High Rink, 12 p.m.) — The Red Rangers and their explosive offense led by senior Julia Masotta hosts 150-goal scorer Delaney Couture and the Colonials.
Saturday, Bishop Stang at Cohasset/Hanover (at Zapustas Arena, 12:45 p.m.) — Two teams on the fringe of cracking the Top 20 look to separate themselves from the fellow chasers.
Monday, Notre Dame-Hingham at Wellesley (at Babson Skating Rink, 7 p.m.) — After two losses to ranked teams last week, the pressure is on NDA to perform against top teams with the tournament looming.