Warwick native and former Olympic hockey player Sara DeCosta Hayes visited Our Lady of Mercy School in East Greenwich on Tuesday, showing off her medals and her gear to a captivated bunch of fifth graders.
One little girl in the back of the room was especially into it. She doesn’t play hockey, she said, but she watches it all the time. She knew every player DeCosta mentioned.
As she took questions from the class, DeCosta had a question, too.
“You know so much about hockey,” she said to the girl. “Why don’t you play?”
It was an interesting question.
When DeCosta was growing up, she played on boys’ teams, all the way through to Toll Gate High School, where she starred in net for the Titans. She talked to the class about her first tryout for a girls’ junior national team, and how she had to adjust to the speed. She’d literally never played against girls.
Back then, the question wasn’t “Why don’t you play hockey?”
It was “Why do you?”
Times have certainly changed.
Sixteen years ago, women’s hockey made its Olympic debut and DeCosta was in Nagano, Japan, leading the United States to a gold medal. She and her teammates had no idea if anybody was watching – they got their answer later in the games when Kevin Costner asked to have his picture taken with them.
Girls’ hockey has grown by leaps and bounds across the country in the years since, with a steep climb in Rhode Island.
And DeCosta’s hometown is at the center of it. The Warwick Junior Hockey Association has a flourishing girls’ program and the Warwick co-op high school team is emerging as a state championship contender.
“It’s really impressive to see how much the sport has grown,” DeCosta said. “There are some really good girls out there.”
The high school squad is carrying the torch. The Lady Titans are in second place in the state’s top division, just a point back of La Salle, a team they’ve beaten once this season. Sophomore Madison Balutowski is the state’s top goal scorer.
DeCosta is an assistant coach with the girls’ hockey program at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., and she has run a camp specifically for girls’ hockey at Providence College. She knows several of the Warwick players and couldn’t be happier to see their success.
She’s a fan.
“A few of the girls play with my organization so I try to follow it,” she said. “It’s great. I played for the boys at Toll Gate. To see the girls team excelling so much is a lot of fun. It’s awesome.”
The Lady Titans wear different blue and red jerseys than the one she wore when she was a Titan who happened to be a lady. It’s a cool reminder of how far girls’ hockey has come.
When the Olympic hockey games get underway, DeCosta and some of her former teammates plan to get together and watch the games. They know it’s a different – and better – hockey world than the one they grew up in.
And that question? Why don’t you play?
Turns out the girl’s dad won’t let her.
Thankfully, that’s the only thing stopping girls’ hockey now.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100.