Roller hockey championships: Vermont's roster is the most gender diverse in the nation

Apr. 17—AUBURN — Half the battle for the University of Vermont roller hockey team is getting the opponent to not underestimate the Catamounts before they even play them.

A wake-up call from one of the Catamounts' five female players — the most in the nation and half of Vermont's 10-player roster — can be a reality check an opposing player not ready for a hit.

Senior Brooke Weatherup plays defense for the Catamounts and plans to come back next year as a Graduate Assistant. In goal is sophomore Katelyn Smith. Offensively, sophomores Emma Brophy and Greta Schutz look to score, alongside senior Kayleigh Bushweller.

For Vermont coach Derrick Legger, having a highly coed roster is an advantage for the Catamounts, because he said teams tend to underestimate their ability.

"That's the unfortunate reality of the world we're in, is that some of these teams with all guys are going to think, 'Oh, I can take advantage of that,' and then, you know, Kayleigh puts you on your ass and you kind of wake up real quick," Legger said. "That's been awesome for us, because they are in no way a weakness in any way, shape or form — they are a positive to this game, and from inside the lock room out, they're viewed that way by everybody."

When asked about her physical style of play, Bushweller simply said, "A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."

Vermont's lone goal in Wednesday's National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association national championship tournament opener against Penn State was scored by Brophy. Penn State's roster has one female player — Kyra Rodgers, a five-foot-tall defenseman.

"We were on the power play and Nicky (Saffell) went to take the shot and then it ended up getting to the back door and I just bumped it in," Brophy said. "It definitely takes time to get used to the intensity and the speed and surface (at Nationals). We don't have a surface (at UVM), so it takes a while to get used to."

According to Legger, Brophy is one of the team's captains this year, and previously played college ice hockey before transferring to Vermont. Legger said Brophy is a "phenomenal" player and a "vocal leader for the team, who's very quick."

Being on a co-ed roller hockey team doesn't make much of a difference to Brophy, she said, aside from the comfort of having other women in the locker room to bond with.

"It's definitely nice to have other girls on the team that you can just feel comfortable (with) in the locker room and stuff like that, but all the guys on our team are very inclusive and we're all just buddies," Brophy said.

She thinks as support for women in sports grows across all disciplines, roller hockey will follow suit.

For Schutz, being on an equal male-to-female hockey team was a newer concept that excited her. Growing up in New Hampshire, Schutz and Smith played on the same high school and club team. Smith credited the strong community of women's and girls hockey teams in Hanover, New Hampshire, that she got to play with and against.

"When I first joined, I didn't exactly realize it wasn't normal to have a more coed team, so I showed up to the first preseason tournament, and it's just all guys everywhere," Schutz said. "I've never played a lot of girls who are good enough to be on these roller hockey teams, and played with men during high school. It was a bit of a shock to me, to be honest."

While this is her first season with the UVM roller hockey team, Legger said Schutz has been a great addition to the program and has fit perfectly into the team culture, especially coming from a lifelong hockey background.

All five women agreed the level of play and the physicality is not dependent on gender in roller hockey. Smith, who plays in goal, laughed while saying, "a puck is a puck, a shot in the face is a shot in the face," no matter the gender of the person holding the stick.

"It is intimidating, we do have a lot of non-men on our team, and it is great to be like, 'Oh, we're the women of the NRHCA,'" Smith said. "I would say go for it; it's really fun, regardless of your gender. You'll find a good group of people and, sure, it's stereotypical that guys play more aggressively, but Kayleigh will take people out."

"If you want to play, play; go for it," Smith said. "You can be just as badass as any guy out there."

Legger called Smith the "heart and soul where everything starts, from the back of the room to the blue line and up," especially with her enthusiasm and high spirit during tough games and seasons. The Catamounts are currently 1-17, and Smith is often facing double digits for shots on goal.

Weatherup started playing ice hockey at 14 years old, and said she played on an all-boys team "as the story goes."

"When I was a senior in high school, we finally got a women's team in my city, the San Diego Angels, and the coach of that is actually one of the USA roller women's coaches, Alex Morrison," Weatherup said. "I didn't actually get into roller until I came to Vermont, and my friend Victor (Nukovic) is on the team as well, and was like, 'You got to try out, you've got to come out, it's so fun and it's so chill compared to the ice teams,'" Weatherup said.

Now, the San Diego native is involved in many efforts to encourage women to join roller hockey, and played in March for the California Winter Nationals Tournament through the Women's Roller Hockey Association. She said this was her first introduction to really seeing what roller hockey could be like with more female players.

"I don't know if you've talked to Miranda Lemus on Boston (University's team) yet, she's a pretty big deal in the world of roller," Weatherup said. "She helps host the Women's Roller Hockey podcast and she was at that tournament playing in the women's pro (division), which was a step above the division I was in."

While Lemus and Weatherup are the same age, Weatherup said she hopes to find more female role models in the sport that she can look up to as her career progresses. Legger said Weatherup is one of the most veteran women on the team, and a foundational, vocal leader on and off the playing surface.

Bushweller said she was encouraged to try out roller hockey after seeing a posting on UVM's website, but was nervous to be one of few women.

"It's definitely the best decision ever. I made a really good group of friends and I think it's a really cool thing to be able to do and something that you can play indoor, outdoor, it's just so much fun," Bushweller said.

Legger called Bushweller "a motor," who keeps pushing the pace and hustles with determination. He also said she is probably one of, if not the most, passionate players in roller hockey.

"When I played here years ago, we had two or three women on the team pretty much every year," Legger said. "I think that's been an awesome factor in who we are as a team, and we have a lot of strong women, especially, which makes it better that a lot of these teams are out here, we were able to surprise them every time we put together a competitive team."

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