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Pioneers of Westwood girls’ program now excelling at higher levels

01/28/2014, 12:45pm MST
By Tom Robinson - Special to

The senior class has stuck together to turn the Westwood High School girls’ hockey team into a state title contender in Massachusetts.

Ice hockey was not always so easy for the group, however.

They endured the growing pains of starting a girls’ program virtually from scratch, paving the way for what is now a thriving program in the Westwood Youth Hockey Association. A decade ago, girls were a very small part of the Westwood Youth Hockey Association, fitting in among the boys who dominated the program. Commitment from parents of girls, administrators of the program and the girls themselves all combined to start the process of changing that outlook.

Dave Witherell, the current Westwood Youth Hockey Association girls’ director, pointed to former association president David Horsfall and former girls’ director David Burke as two of the early leaders in the program’s growth.

While there are parents and other leaders who deserve credit, Horsfall and Burke, who are both among that group, believe the perseverance of the early players is worthy of appreciation. Horsfall and Burke each have daughters who played through the program’s early stages.

The first Westwood girls’ team competed on the Under-12 level, although it included a group of 8-year-olds. The players went winless in their first season, but enthusiastically came back for more. More and more players continued to join them each season.

“It was not easy in the beginning,” said Burke, whose daughter Siobhan eventually switched to playing goalie and is now one of the top goalies statistically in Massachusetts high school hockey. “But, they stuck with it. They gave opportunity to those who followed.

“A lot of them still volunteer. Every week, little girls come to learn to skate and they are instructed by girls' players who they can look to as role models.”

Siobhan Burke has followed Horsfall’s daughter Katie as captain at Westwood High, which went to the state semifinals the last two seasons and is off to a strong start this season as it enjoys the most successful stretch in school history.

Katie Horsfall, a defenseman, has moved on to Connecticut to play prep school hockey at Kent in her senior year. Her father said he still clearly remembers her first goal, “and it was not in the first season.” There were not many to go around in the program's first year.

When Westwood’s board of directors decided to try to build a girls’ hockey program, it fully committed to giving the teams a chance to grow.

Prior to starting girls’ travel teams, Westwood had just about 15 girls in its house leagues and only three girls playing on the 12-15 travel teams the association offered each year.

“Our daughters were in the cross-ice program,” Burke said. “They liked hockey, but when you looked ahead at what travel had to offer, we had three girls playing. It was a good fit for those three girls, but my daughter looked at it as boys-dominated teams. She wanted to play with girls.”

Other girls and parents felt the same way. The daughters wanted to learn the sport while not missing out on the social aspects of being on a girls’ team.

An original group of 18 interested girls started the process that has grown into Westwood putting 5-6 girls’ travel teams on the ice each season. Westwood has a U10 team, two U12s and two U14s this season in addition to a half-season U19 team that plays prior to the start of high school hockey.

“We had the support of the youth hockey program,” Burke said. “In 2003, girls’ hockey was right on the verge, but it was not where it is now.”

When new programs are added, issues like demands on ice team have to be discussed.

“What ended up happening was real important,” Horsfall said. “All the way through, we never treated the girls’ program as girls. We treated it as another travel team. … They got the same support of the other travel programs.”

That spirit continued even as Westwood began the process of catching up to other associations that had started girls’ programs earlier.

“We knew there would be growing pains,” Burke said. “There were not many wins, but we had to start somewhere.

“The kids and the parents recognized that.”

Burke sees the dividends in the current strength of the Westwood Youth program and when he watches his daughter’s high school team put together winning streaks.

“It’s certainly fair to say some of these kids would not be playing hockey now if they had not been afforded a chance to play then,” Burke said. “Siobhan became a goalie at 10. There’s no doubt that would not have happened.”

Burke also credits the Middlesex Yankee Conference Girls’ Hockey League, which Westwood joined a few years after starting its girls’ teams, with helping the growth. The conference has enough teams at each age group to split according to skill level and keep games competitive, another key to participation levels growing.

“We’ve had some teams that won the middle level and others that came in last on the top level, but the games have always stayed competitive and the participation levels have stayed high,” he said.

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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