Playing with the boys: Female hockey players in the Pikes Peak region are hanging tough

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Photo - From left to right, Liberty's Madi Morton and Julia Dessart, Air Academy's Melian Haberl and Katy Cooley, and Pine Creek's KC Brooks.
From left to right, Liberty's Madi Morton and Julia Dessart, Air Academy's Melian Haberl and Katy Cooley, and Pine Creek's KC Brooks.

When Kassia (KC) Brooks was 6 years old, she laced up a pair of ice hockey skates for the first time.

She grew up watching her brother Alex play, and was inspired by other female hockey players to try a sport more commonly monopolized by boys.

Flash forward nearly 10 years, and KC Brooks has emerged as one of the top high school defensemen in the state - boy or girl.

As a sophomore defender for Pine Creek, Brooks is the "quarterback" of the power play, she’s on the Eagles’ penalty kill unit, and has cultivated a reputation around the area as one of the top female players in Colorado high school hockey.

But Brooks is not the only talented lady on the ice in the Pikes Peak region. Area high schools around Colorado Springs have seen an influx of female hockey players joining the ranks and paving the way for women in high school hockey.

Pine Creek, along with Liberty, Rampart, Air Academy, Woodland Park and Lewis-Palmer boast female players on their rosters, including some, like Brooks, who have dedicated their sports future to life on the ice.

Playing at the next level

Although she’s only a sophomore, Brooks is already verbally committed to continue her hockey career at the Division I level after receiving an offer from Providence at the beginning of her sophomore year.

“She’s a big-time player, and I think everybody can see it when she plays,” Pine Creek coach Ed Saxer said. “Sometimes when you get a girl who is that good, sometimes the boys get jealous, but really for the most part everybody is respectful of her, and everybody knows who she is because she is that good.”

Although her presence on the team at Pine Creek is evident, she was noticed by recruiters at a young age thanks to competing with a St. Louis AAA team. While playing on the high school team with boys helps their development, most area players must also play on a girls’ club team in order to garner recruiting interest.

Air Academy’s Meilan Haberl stepped away from high school hockey in her junior year to focus on playing for her tournament team in Western Michigan, where she travels across the country a few times a month to compete on the AAA club in front of scouts.

“It’s so hard to get recruited in women’s hockey,” Haberl said. “I love playing with the boys and I love playing for my high school team, but I realized I wasn’t going to be able to get to the next level by staying here and playing for the teams I’ve always played on. So this year is the big push year to get recruited.”

Haberl’s dream, like many other female hockey players, is to play at a top level and one day to wear a red, white and blue jersey for team USA, much like her father, Peter did for his national team in Austria.

Despite her extensive travel, Haberl continues to keep up with her schoolwork and other hobbies, and continues to skate with the Kadets a few times a year.

“It’s been a process, I’m an intrinsic hard worker, so I keep up with my schoolwork while traveling, and I worked for all of my skills,” Haberl said. “I wasn’t naturally talented player, I’ve had to work for all of my skills to stick handle, shoot, skate, hockey knowledge, all of it. It’s been a pretty formative part of my life.”

Girls in goal

Although Haberl doesn’t play with Air Academy full time, the Kadets still have a standout female on their squad in junior goaltender Katy Cooley.

“Katy is a solid goaltender and it’s really a surprise for other teams and her teammates to see how solid she is in net,” Air Academy coach Andrew Marshall said. “They see the girl persona and wrap it all into the stigma of a girl hockey player, but she brings a lot to the team. She has definitely been the difference in games that we’ve won, and in the way the guys play.”

Cooley is in a minority as a female on the ice, and even more so in goal, but she said it was the one position she had always been interested in.

“I always wanted to play in net, but my dad wouldn’t let me for a few years,” Cooley said. “And eventually I was playing in Monument and they needed the goalie, so I dressed and went from there.”

Cooley made the transition about four years ago as an eighth-grader, and had to endure a developmental transition in net while playing against the boys.

“It used to be very hard for me,” Cooley said. “There’s a point where the boys will develop a little more than you do, so there was a bit of a gap where you’re not going to be good for a little while. And then sometimes I would have to face girls and boys in the same day and their shots would be completely different, and that’s a switch you have to flip in your brain.”

Keeping up with the boys

The clear developmental gap between boys and girls didn’t just affect Cooley’s game throughout high school ice hockey, but every female playing with boys. Whether they’re being targeted due to their talent, size or gender, it’s not always smooth skating for the local ladies on the ice.

“I’ve heard coaches tell their players to go after me and target me, and they definitely don’t back off because I’m a girl - they treat me like anyone else,” Brooks said. “When they do target me it is a little bit scary, but it sort of fires me up to know that they’re mad at me for being good.”

Brooks also said when she’s in a situation against a physical team, she knows her teammates have her back.

“It’s a bit nerve-wracking, but the boys on my team treat me like a sister so I know I’m protected out there,” she said.

But even though playing with the boys sometimes promotes a more physical game, it is clear among the female hockey players in the area that playing with the boys helps them to become better all-around players.

“My first two years of high school I didn’t play with the boys, but I really wanted to get better as a player, so I joined,” said Julia Dessart, a senior on the Liberty hockey team. “I knew high school hockey was a faster pace and more physical, and I knew that playing with the boys would make me a better player in boys' and girls' hockey.”

Dessart’s teammate Madi Morton started playing hockey at 6 years old with the hope of one day playing with the boys after watching her older cousin play on a coed team.

“I just thought it was really cool to see a girl playing along with the guys,” Morton said. “I’ve always been closer with boys, so it’s been awesome to be able to play with them.”

Morton said when she was younger she encountered trouble fitting in on coed teams because of the "don’t get beat by a girl" stigma on adolescent teams, but as she has gotten older she and Dessart have been accepted among the boys.

“The way that guys work with each other is very different than girls, so we kind of have to try and be like one of the guys,” Dessart said.

But acting like one of the guys can sometimes come with injuries. Morton said she broke her collarbone playing on a boys team, but said she doesn’t let that stop her from playing tough.

“If you’re afraid when you’re on the ice, you’re not going to play your best game,” Morton said. “I kind of treat it like I’m playing with girls because you can’t be afraid.”

The women playing ice hockey around the Pikes Peak region is only the beginning, according to area coaches. With rule changes and hitting regulations being enforced around the league, high school hockey has become a female-friendly sport.

“Girls are getting better and better every year, and I see more and more come out,” Saxer said. “And now with the success of the women’s team and the Olympics, the sport is really starting to grow.”

Other notable female players in the Pikes Peak region

Tori Bevan – Cheyenne Mountain: Bevan is a freshman forward for the Indians and played in 10 games.

Samantha White – Cheyenne Mountain: White, a sophomore defender, appeared in 10 games during the 2017-18 season.

Lily Parmeter - Lewis-Palmer: Parmeter, a junior defenseman for the Rangers appeared in 12 games for Lewis-Palmer in the 2017-18 season.

Mackenzie Dudevior - Rampart: Dudevior, a junior defender, had a pair of assists for the Rams and played in 20 games, including Rampart’s state tournament appearance.

Haily Boyle - Rampart: Boyle is a junior forward for the Rams and aided Rampart to a 6-3 win over Castle View in her lone appearance in 2017-18.

Maddison Henggeler - Woodland Park: Henggeler is a sophomore defender who appeared in four games for Woodland Park in its inaugural season.