As colleges across the country shrink the number of varsity sports they offer, some students are rallying to create opportunities at the club sports level.
One of the fastest growing club sports at the collegiate level is women's ice hockey, and Virginia Tech is the latest school to field a team.
Junior architecture students Samantha Grey and Lily Espino are co-founders of the new team, which has about 15 members now, 10 of whom had never played before joining.
“It’s a lot of coaching and teaching them, some of these girls have never held a stick before,” said Espino, who has played since she was about 10 years old. “It’s a lot of commitment and trust and one big discussion and having them trust us to help them along the process.”
The team recently started a GoFundMe page in hopes of raising enough to pay for travel, gear, ice time and other expenses. They’re fully self-funded thus far, and hope to one day become an official club sport like the men’s team, which was formed in 1984. But a RSO (Registered Student Organization) must run smoothly on its own for a couple years before it can become a University-sponsored club.
Sydney Staples, a high school senior planning to attend Tech, started an Instagram page for the team in September, which helped Grey and Espino gather the requisite interest. Espino tried to put together a team her freshman and sophomore years, but the idea never gained enough traction.
After securing the required members this fall and getting the administrative ball rolling with the University toward becoming a RSO, Espino and Grey began searching for a league to join.
Enter the Roanoke Developmental Hockey League, a means of competing the two said is perfect for their team at this stage of its development.
“We’re in that sweet spot where we’ll be good enough to play as a team, but we just need a lot of experience,” Grey said. “So we’re really grateful to have the Roanoke Developmental Hockey League nearby.”
The RDHL is comprised of local teams ranging from college age to 40-plus-year-old adults. The Tech women began practicing on ice at a rink in Roanoke this month, and games in the RDHL are set to commence when they return from winter break. They already have their schedule, and have paid for gear, league fees, gas money and other expenses on their own.
“We are cautiously trying to take every step forward and just do enough planning so we continue on the upward trajectory,” Grey said.
But on the horizon for the burgeoning team lies what could become their permanent home — the similarly upstart Women’s Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League.
Founded just last year, the WACCHL currently includes teams at five schools — Virginia, NC State, Georgetown, George Washington and West Virginia. The men’s ACCHL, which began in 1995, is comprised of 16 teams in the Mid-Atlantic region, including teams from the same five schools as well as James Madison and Richmond.
Mike Walley has been the commissioner of the ACCHL since 2010, and was instrumental in kickstarting the women’s league.
“It was his energy, idea and hard work to get this women’s league put together,” said Deborah Elek, the women’s coach at NC State and league commissioner.
“It’s brand new, and we’re excited that teams have decided to join our league and the league looks like it’s going to expand pretty rapidly.”
Grey and Espino have had preliminary conversations with Elek about Tech joining the league, and students at High Point and Louisville have also expressed interest, Elek said. NC State and George Washington played in an informal league championship last year in Winston-Salem, N.C., but the WACCHL has not yet had an official season.
Elek said they, like so many in the sports world, are in a “holding pattern” to determine how the pandemic will effect their ability to get on the ice and play a formal inaugural season. She hopes to have at least an abbreviated season begin in the coming months — her Wolfpack are currently practicing on the ice, awaiting word from other schools.
“I think it’s great for women’s hockey and the growth. … Once this really catches on and people see that there’s an opportunity, other universities are gonna want to have a hockey team too. It only takes that one student that has a hockey background to say ‘I want to continue to play hockey in college.’”
For now, the Tech team will begin play in the RDHL and continue to raise interest and funds in order to work toward joining the WACCHL, said Grey and Espino. They added that the Hokies men’s team, namely Dave Standley, one of its original founders who is now a coach, has helped them with logistics like finding gear and joining the rec league.
“It’s pretty neat to see how he started it and their struggles, and being able to talk about what’s to come for us and to lean on them a little bit, especially Dave,” Espino said. “I can almost see my future.”
Grey and Espino know they may not still be students at Tech when the fruits of their labor truly come to bear. Their architecture program is a five-year path, but the process of becoming a club sport and joining the WACCHL could take years.
But they’re content with the belief that they’ve laid the groundwork for the next generation, and made a contribution to the larger, ongoing battle for gender equality in sports.
“I think it’s a really great opportunity to establish and just bring up the playing field and open it up to women and girls at Virginia Tech to experience this great sport,” Grey said.
“The USA women’s team and all the [National Women’s Hockey League] teams are working so hard to fight for gender equality in the sports field and they’re also focusing on pay discrepancies. … But it also starts from here, we’re kind of the bottom. Getting one more girls team where there is a guys team is also strengthening their case.”
Espino grew up playing in the D.C. area, and one of her role models was Capitals legend Alexander Ovechkin. When Espino was 17, the Caps had an event with part of the women’s national team to promote women in hockey. Espino attended with her travel team, and got her jersey signed by some of her heroes.
She’s developed a pension for getting other young women interested in ice hockey, and introduced Grey to the sport in the girls’ freshman year.
“I had a blast, I felt like a giant meathead on the ice running into things, falling over, hitting the puck,” Grey said, comparing it to non-contact sports she’d played before. “I felt like it was a lawless world on the ice.”
Espino hopes grassroots women’s hockey efforts like her own help foster a new era of girls interested in the sport, and a new group of heroes on the ice for them to look up to.
“For younger girls, they’re looking up to play at collegiate teams and they’re looking at the national team, this brand new NWHL (founded in 2015), and that’s something I hope just keeps growing because that’s something I never had,” Espino said.
Espino has already seen encouraging signs of growing interest in the sport at the youth level. During her final season with her travel team, Espino remembers a young girl watching in the stands with her mother.
Gesturing at Espino on the ice, the girl said “Mom, look, she’s really good, I want to be like her.”
Espino went over to fist bump her, an interaction that made her day.
“This is something that I’m going to end up passing down, I hope for a long time,” Espino said of the Tech team.
“It’s bigger than us and bigger than just me wanting to be able to play. It’s something that all these girls want to do and be a part of. They don't know it yet, but it will be kick ass.”