Rock County Fury a program on the rise
Ellie Woodman remembers standing in front of a panel, speaking on behalf of a group that was hoping to create a girls hockey co-op between the Janesville high schools and Beloit Memorial High.
She was a middle-schooler, and expectedly she was nervous, but she delivered her message.
Nearly six years later, Woodman is a senior captain and the leading scorer of the Rock County Fury, the area’s high school girls hockey program. And in a sign of how that program has come together, the co-op now spans seven schools and stretches beyond the county line.
More schools could be on the way, though the ever-present discussion about high school co-ops in the state continues.
Janesville Craig, Janesville Parker and Beloit Memorial athletes playing together?
It sounds borderline proposterous.
The programs are supposed to be rivals.
But the idea of bringing them together in girls hockey was floated in 2007 and then approved by the school boards and the WIAA in 2008.
“Janesville originally went to get a girls team, and it was going to be just Janesville,” Fury coach Darrel Moore said. “Then Beloit came in, and Ellie Woodman’s mom (Kathy) thought, ‘These girls have played youth hockey, why not make a bigger co-op?’”
Turner and Clinton were also part of the original co-op.
“We didn’t want to have to pay a lot of money and gas mileage to go play for a triple-A team,” Ellie Woodman recalled.
The program began with 24 players for the 2008-09 season.
Moore said the number of players has ebbed and flowed since. There were 18 players listed on the roster at a game Thursday night in Beloit.
“From Janesville Parker now, we’ve got zero girls, but in a couple years we’ll have two or three,” Moore said. “Having that balance of so many schools does help when one dips.”
The co-op has added Milton and Monroe to the mix over the past couple years.
Bringing the group together at the high-school level has also helped spawn similarly constructed youth teams.
“The blue-line club down here in Beloit is a good example of watching how much volunteer stuff is done to make the programs happen,” Moore said. “What ended up happening was the youth hockey got together. So we’ve got three youth teams, U-14, U-12 and U-10. They’ve got quite a few girls coming through.”
The distance between schools and hometowns doesn’t seem to keep the Fury apart.
“When we don’t have practice, we’re always together doing something,” Janesville Craig sophomore Kayla Kaufman said. “We’ll go anywhere, whoever’s houses, wherever we can.”
To Moore, that’s what makes the odd co-op special.
“You’ve got Molly Gross from Monroe, and she’s become really good friends with kids from Clinton,” he said. “Some are from Janesville Craig and some are from Beloit Memorial. Nowhere, besides this co-op, do those girls become friends.
“Wins and losses are nice, but it’s the memories that you have.”
Woodman says that camaraderie goes hand-in-hand with on-ice success.
This Fury team is more close-knit than any other year she has been on the team. Rock County sported a 7-7-2 record going into the weekend, already exceeding its win total from each of the past two years.
“There’s always been a lot of skill, but it just never really meshed well with personalities,” Woodman said. “This year, the upcoming freshmen really look up to a lot of us seniors. We’re doing our job to make sure they fit in and feel comfortable.”
Woodman leads the team in both goals (13) and assists (18). But, showing the diversity of the group, the team’s top five scorers attend four different high schools.
“Right away it was kind of weird having the big rivals—Beloit and Janesville—get together,” Woodman said. “But I think we’ve really been showing everyone that it’s not a rivalry between us. There’s just something about it that brings us all together.”
In theory, the purpose of a co-op is to grow a sport and grow programs until they’re ready to branch out on their own.
The Rock County co-op isn’t ready for that, but Moore indicated numbers are trending in a direction where it could become a conversation in years to come.
“I think we’ve built this into a pretty self-sustaining program,” he said.
In fact, the co-op could grow a little before anything else. An item in the agenda for the Parkview School Board’s Monday night meeting indicated a discussion about joining with Beloit and Clinton schools in boys and girls hockey.
Moore hopes the discussion continues within the state when it comes to co-ops. He indicated there are 33 girls teams currently in the state, with just three non-co-op programs.
“My feeling is the WIAA has kind of got to work with that,” Moore said. “Everyone is a Tier 1; everyone plays in the same state tournament. If they make two tiers, the teams that are still trying to grow their programs can still play in the same conference and maybe they’ll get beat up, but they have something to play for. I think that’s creative.
“And if there are girls who love hockey who have been playing their whole life and they’re not getting ice time, then it’s time to look (at splitting up). Sometimes it’s a numbers thing. Sometimes you can’t, because splitting up would leave the other one with too few.”
Tight times within school board budgets don’t make the discussion easier, Moore admitted, and in many places ice time is already at a premium.
“There would have to be creative solutions,” Moore said.
Woodman—who has been invited to a walk-on tryout with NCAA Division I program Lindenwood next year—will keep a close eye on how it all unfolds.
“I do hope that they keep growing the program. It’s awesome because it allows the girls to go to the schools they want to and still be with their friends,” Woodman said. “They aren’t forced to make a choice between hockey and their friends.
“I’d love to see the team stay together, but I’d love to see the girl’s sport grow. If there comes a time where each of these schools can be their own team, that’s going to be incredible. I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing that in my lifetime.”