On one of the busiest travel weekends of the year, Crysti Howser ’09 and Maggie Westfal ’09 sat wedged in their seats on an early morning flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The first 11 weeks of college had come and gone without a day off, and a grueling three-month soccer season, capped off by the biggest game in school history against the defending national champions, had come to an end just hours before. There was little sleep to be had the previous night in South Bend, or really any at all in the days and weeks before as the College Cup playoffs rolled on and final exams loomed larger.
“We went straight to the rink from the airport,” Howser said. “I was a little tired after playing the whole game the night before, but I got into the swing of things after a while.”
Such is the life of the two-sport athlete, a rarity at Yale. This is the first time in women’s soccer head coach Rudy Meredith’s ten-year tenure in New Haven that he has ever had a player also on the ice hockey team, never mind two. But for Howser and Westfal, this episode was just another chapter in the juggling act between the soccer field and hockey rink that they have played out for nearly their entire lives.
On November 18, the night before The Game, the two freshmen laced up for the Bulldogs against Notre Dame in a third round game of the NCAA Women’s Soccer Tournament. To say that the pair had contributed to the Elis’ Ivy League title and unprecedented College Cup run is a vast understatement. Westfal, a forward, blasted out of the gate in September, winning Rookie of the Week honors her third week at Yale, and Howser, a center midfielder, led the team in points with 25 and was recently crowned Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
Yale’s Cinderella run would end on that snow-dusted Indiana night, with the heavily favored Irish finally toppling the Bulldogs. The Elis kicked back to marvel over their magical season, but much to the awe of their weary teammates, Howser and Westfal could afford only a few moments to pause. After all, there was a big game against Dartmouth the next afternoon.
“I’m really excited for them, but I think they’re crazy,” women’s soccer captain Eleni Benson ’06 said. “I just can’t imagine how they do it, just getting a ten-hour break between soccer and hockey, especially with a soccer season like ours that ended in so many emotional games.”
And it was hardly as if the Big Green were waiting nearby. A bus ride from South Bend to Chicago, a flight from Chicago to Hartford, and another bus ride to New Haven later, the pair finally joined up with their hockey teammates, already in their third week of action, just minutes before the puck dropped.
Their inaugural game at Ingalls Rink was nothing short of spectacular, especially given the duo’s sleepless night and 778-mile trek. Although Dartmouth would win the game, 4-2, Westfal scored in her Eli hockey debut. Howser, who had fed midfielder Emma Whitfield ’09 for the Bulldogs’ second goal against Notre Dame, duplicated her line from the night before by getting a hand in Westfal’s goal.
Their soccer teammates in attendance at Ingalls Rink rose to their feet, amazed by the gutsy efforts.
“To be honest, from day one I was sort of in awe of their ambitions to play both sports,” soccer goalie Chloe Beizer ’07 said. “I think it’s pretty amazing what they are doing.”
The two-sport athlete seems to capture the imagination of the American sports fan. Yet, before entertaining illusions of Deion Sanders’ daily airlift by helicopter from Atlanta Falcons afternoon practice to night games at the Braves’ Fulton County Stadium, it is important to note that Howser and Westfal’s busy weekend is probably the only point this year that the two sports will butt heads on the schedule.
With the end of the soccer season, Meredith has given over his rookie stars to hockey head coach Hilary Witt. Howser and Westfal will not practice with the soccer team until the spring.
“Regulations say players can only [practice] so many hours per week,” Witt said. “But beyond that, while they’re in soccer season, it’s only fair to the school, the team, and themselves that they stay chiefly on the soccer field. Just like in soccer, I trust all their focus and effort will be on hockey.”
In this regard, the Ivy League athletic experience is far different from the high school careers both players experienced. Howser remembers making many tough choices during her years at New Trier Township High School in Wilmette, Ill., home of the number one ranked girls’ soccer program in the country. In her dazzling tenure there, she was named all-state for soccer two years in a row, was a co-captain of the Chicago Chill boys AAA hockey team, and all the while shuttled back and forth to Massachusetts to play with girls in the Assabet Valley program.
“I was always doing both year-round, and it was a lot more work,” she said. “I was flying out for tournaments and practices on weekends. As I got older and I was out of town more often, I had to make a lot of decisions of what I could play in and what I could miss.”
Coming into college, every scheduling arrangement had been made well in advance. When the two head coaches sorted the deal out, Witt only expected to be missing Howser and Westfal for the first few days of the season.
But little did anyone anticipate that the Elis, ranked fourth in the Ivies, would storm to an Ivy League championship and then plow three rounds deep into the postseason, forcing the squad over at Ingalls Rink to go eight games into the season without two of their top prospects.
“This is the first time we have had an arrangement like this, and it was obviously hard for us, as soccer is always going to have first priority over them,” Witt said. “It was hard for us not to have those kids, but if the option to play at the national level arises, we understand. We’ve had similar situations with softball players.”
As the soccer season stretched well past Halloween, Benson characterized her squad’s relationship with a patient hockey team as supportive, with plenty of gentle ribbing.
“I talked to some of the hockey girls during our stretch run,” she said. “They kept asking me how [Westfal and Howser] were doing, they were excited we were doing well, but really couldn’t wait to finally get their two girls.”
As soon as the two programs began scouting Howser and Westfal in their junior years of high school, the respective coaching staffs understood they would be taking on unique packages. Despite the inconveniences from the overlap of the two seasons, Meredith said the decision to take on the pair was a no-brainer.
“We knew that the pros would outweigh the cons, and a chance to get two great athletes at that,” he said. “If you have a chance for Wayne Gretzky for all but two weeks of the season, I think I still would take him.”
Witt also said the opportunity to play on both teams was probably the chief factor in both players’ decisions to attend Yale.
“The truth of the matter is, these kids probably wouldn’t come here if they couldn’t do [both sports],” Witt said.
As performance in their hockey debut and games since has attested, Howser and Westfal have hardly missed a beat physically, and they have assimilated nicely into the Elis’ on-ice strategy. But an extra few weeks on the soccer field also meant an extra few weeks away from hockey captain’s practices, lifting sessions, and all the team bonding that takes place in the early days of a season. Both freshmen know players on the Yale squad from previous club teams, Howser’s Assabet Valley team and Westfal’s Connecticut Stars program, but Witt still predicted that fitting into the overall team chemistry might be a longer process.
One thing the pair can be sure of at the rink is that they already have a pack of die-hard fans. Look no further than a fair chunk of the soccer team skipping Harvard-Yale football to watch the Elis play at Ingalls Rink.
Beizer, a boisterous vocal leader on the soccer team, has been christened the head of the fledgling fan club.
“[The team] spent the bus ride home from Hartford reveling in the fact that we now will become the SuperFans of women’s ice hockey,” she said. “We’re even considering ordering giant foam fingers.”