South Jersey players star on first-ever U.S. women’s U20 ball hockey team

Two Medford residents and others from the region were part of the U.S. team at the ISBHF U20 Girls World Cup in Prerov, Czech Republic.

Gwen Vance tries to steal the ball away from a Slovakian player during a game at the ISBHF U20 Girls World Cup.

A group of South Jersey girls emerged from street hockey rinks around the region to become a part of history this summer.

Players from Marlton, Medford and Cherry Hill were part of the first United States women’s U20 ball hockey team. The club traveled to Prerov, Czech Republic, to take part in the ISBHF U20 Girls World Cup earlier this summer. The tournament took place from June 27 through July 1.

Many of the players on the first USA U20 girls’ team had come up playing street hockey locally. Some of the players, such as Julia Cutler of Cherry Hill, Amelia Mauger of Marlton and Gwen Vance of Medford, joined Marlton Street Hockey and were influenced by brothers who played the sport.

“I decided to start playing one year (in Marlton) and I loved it,” Cutler said. “I eventually tried out for the travel team.”

Some players, such as Jenna Shaw of Marlton and Hayley Kowalczyk, focused on other sports before switching to street hockey. Shaw was a soccer player before she picked up ball hockey at the age of 13, while Kowalczyk originally played ice hockey before she switched to ball hockey.

“I did end up liking hockey better,” Shaw said. “It was partially the sport and partially the community of the sport.”

When the American Street Hockey Institute, the national governing body for the sport, decided to enter a girls’ team in the inaugural world cup, the tryout process had already begun for the organization’s boys junior teams, which also played in tournaments this summer. To start building the girls’ team, the organization allowed girls to come out to a tryout in August 2017 in Pottstown, Pa.

Jason Kelly, the women’s division general manager, and Scott Tarzy of Marlton, the juniors division general manager, selected the roster for the tournament over the course of more than half a year. The pair used social media and their connections in the sport to recruit players.

“It’s something we wanted to do with the girls to get a younger team in,” Kelly said about fielding a U20 women’s team. “It was definitely something we wanted to use to build the women’s game in the states.”

The players all had different tryout experiences. Mauger tried out for the team at the beginning of the process.

“A lot of people came out with talent,” she said. “Wanting to be on the team pushed me more than anything else.”

Kowalczyk also went to the Pottstown tryout and would attend another tryout later in the year in Massachusetts. She was named to the team toward the end of 2017.

Hayley Kowalczyk tries to screen the Slovakian goalkeeper during a game at the ISBHF U20 Girls World Cup.

“It was really exciting. I was really happy about it,” she said. “It was really exciting to be a part of the team.”

Vance, on the other hand, was one of the latest additions to the team, having joined the roster just a couple months before the tournament. She was also the team’s youngest player at just 13 years old.

“I was surprised, but really excited because I didn’t expect to make it,” Vance said about making the team. “It was a good experience, but it was scary at first because the girls were bigger than you, they had more experience than you.”

With most of the players living in either the Philadelphia or Boston regions, the players would hold practices together to get ready for the tournament. The team only had the chance to play in a few tournaments prior to the World Cup.

During this time, the team selected Mauger as its captain. She immediately embraced the role.

“I took it upon myself to get a personal connection with all of the girls and become friends before I was a captain,” Mauger said. “The girls trusted me.”

The team kept its expectations in check entering the tournament. Three of the other four teams in the tournament, Canada, Czech Republic and Slovakia, had players on their roster with international experience in ice hockey. Both the Czech and Slovakian teams had players who had taken part in the International Ice Hockey Federation World Women’s U18 Championships.

“We knew it would probably be a rough start, because some of the teams have been playing together for years,” Vance said.

The United States was competitive in the tournament, winning its first game against Great Britain, 4–0. Cutler played a huge role in the win, scoring a hat trick to lead the Americans.

“I was hoping for one (goal),” Cutler said, “but after I got my first and got to three, I was completely shocked.”

“It was great,” Cutler said of the win. “It was like our opening (game) and it got us all hyped.”

After a 5–1 loss to eventual gold medalist Czech Republic, the U.S. played three close games to wrap up to tournament. The Americans lost to Canada, 2–0 and Slovakia, 1–0, to wrap up round robin play. In the bronze medal game against Slovakia, the U.S. lost a tight contest, 2–1. The Americans had an opportunity to tie the game late, but the officials called back a possible late goal in the third period.

“It was definitely really frustrating and it was really upsetting after losing,” Kowalczyk said. “I just sat there for a while just thinking about what I could have done.”

“We were in pretty much every game,” Shaw said. “One of the biggest problems we had was we didn’t have enough time to practice together. For the other teams, street hockey was a big thing for them and they had practiced a lot together.”

Kelly described the tournament as the first step in building a strong women’s junior program at ASHI.

“As a coach, to be a part of the game and watch it played on an international stage, it was special,” Kelly said. “The building blocks for that program have been set.”

Many of the younger players are looking to try out for the team again for the next World Cup, while others, such as Shaw, have inquired about coaching. Regardless of their future, all of the girls are hoping their story will help encourage other girls to try out the sport.

“There’s definitely not enough girls who are encouraged to play it,” Shaw said. “Even for me, when I was growing up and my brothers were playing it, I thought of it as an all-boys sport. I’m hoping people can see that this is a sport for girls.”

Cutler, who said she would try out again for the U20 team for future competitions, believes the club has the ability to boost interest in women’s ball hockey in the U.S.

“I think once we play U20s and go back and hopefully do more damage there, a lot more people will want to be involved,” she said.

Kowalczyk also plans to continue to try out for the team and believes, with time, the United States will be able to compete with the top teams in the world.

“Because we did well enough this year and since we have experience, I think we will go out and do better next time,” she said.

For more information on Team USA and the American Street Hockey Institute, email info@ashihockey.org or visit www.ashihockey.org.