By Darren Lum
Walking through Head Lake Park with the chill in the air and the snow on the ground, Sterling Nesbitt said these are some of the aspects of winter she has missed since going to attend Indiana Tech university on an academic scholarship, which included a roster spot for the Warriors women’s hockey team.
The few months away from home for the former Haliburton Highlands Secondary School student reminded her how much she appreciates the place, winter and the people of the area.
“I love how small town we are and you can walk around and say hello to seven different people,” she said. “But I love my snow. I love seeing it and not seeing that in Indiana it’s weird. Like when December hit and there was still no snow and it was messing with my head.”
It was a small price to pay to have an opportunity to play high-level hockey for the Warriors, who are based in Fort Wayne where winter is mild, offering little to no snow. The team is in its first year and competes in the ACHA (American Collegiate Hockey Association) Women’s Division One.
Before the holidays in December, the Warriors were ranked third in the ACHA Women’s Division I National Rankings. Indiana Tech moved up three spots in the fifth regular season edition of the rankings and have been ranked for all polls since the program has began play. Eight teams will qualify for the 2022 ACHA Women’s Division 1 National Championships at the end of the season.
There’s no denying how the U.S. and Canada are similar.
One difference Sterling can’t get over is the colour of the currency, which has given her some challenges when making purchases. The uniformity of the currency with its green colour is a stark contrast to the multi-coloured Canadian currency.
“And the other thing is, just the general politeness,” she said.
Coming into the season, she didn’t expect to finish the season with more than three points. However, her scoring punch has been evident, nearly averaging a point a game, alternating between defence and the forward position.
“My biggest thing was just like making sure I was in the right spot positionally because with defence you just kind of hang out on the blueline until the puck moves or the other team moves towards you. But with forward you’ve got to be able to put yourself in a spot where your team can make plays off of it,” she said.
Her background as a defenceman, she said, has resulted in better breakout plays because she knows where she would want the forward to be positioned.
Indiana Tech head coach, Scott Hicks said Sterling has been an important player for the team on defence and offence, averaging more than 20 minutes per game.
“Sterling has tremendous desire to learn. She has worked her butt off since day one and her improvement has been noticeable. Off the ice she has been extremely successful in the classroom and has made honour roll,” he wrote in an email. “She has been a player that has scored some big goals for us in our first half. Putting up 11 points as a defenceman in her freshman year so far is a big deal and we have counted on her numerous times in big spots to win games!”
He added the Highlands hockey player has the potential to be a 20-point per season player. Her confidence on offence continues to grow, as her confidence grows.
“She is regularly out in crunch time. Her ability to be aggressive and apply pressure defensively is big for us to close out wins down the stretch,” he wrote.
Her speed he said is “invaluable”and has been an asset that enables her scoring chances for herself and teammates. She is a “solid offensive defenceman and we will look to continue to grow her offensive side of her game!”
For three years, Sterling attended the athletic private high school, the Ontario Hockey Academy based in Cornwall after one year at HHSS where she set a record in track and field for midget girls. She matured during her time at the boarding school, figuring out life without parents and managing her time, balancing life, academics with athletics.
This latest experience living away from home in another country with a high-performing team has pushed her to grow more.
“It’s really showing me how much I’ve actually grown. I mean, I used to not think about it a lot and kind of just chose not to acknowledge how much I’ve grown, but with the coaching staff I have they’ve really allowed me to look at myself better. Not only as a player, but as a person. And just kind of realize how much self-growth I’ve done since I’ve been in Indiana,” she said.
Her reference to being better as a person is attributed to her self-confidence and growth in becoming an adult. This also includes being responsible for oneself and accountable “no matter what the situation is.”
Any adjustment challenges were overcome, she said, by virtue of her teammates, who are all going through similar things. She points out with the exception of one player, everyone is in their first year of school. She adds the coach, Hicks uses his many years of experience with running hockey programs to help. He’s told them that it’s okay to feel stress, but that it’s important to push through “the mental part of that in order to build yourself up [to be] better.”
Any homesickness or yearning to know what’s happening up on the Highlands, is alleviated by staying connected with loved ones such as friends and family here. It has been important for her to use FaceTime, and Snapchat to remain in contact.
“It’s keeping in touch. I don’t like not hearing about what’s going on, whether it’s good or bad. I just like keeping that family connection. Because you always hear stories of people’s kids moving away and never talking to them again. And I just love my family and my friends. And they’re not something I want to shy away from,” she said.
Her mother and father have been her biggest fans and supporters, driving thousands of miles and investing thousands in giving their daughter the opportunities for athletics, academics and life.
Cindy said her daughter has always been independent and mature, but she’s taken another step in her maturity.
“Since moving away, I’ve seen her become an adult who has set her mind to achieve goals and become a role-model for other young female athletes. Wyatt [her father] and I flew to Nebraska in September to surprise and see Sterling play for her first collegiate game,” she wrote in an email.
The parents have also made two road trips to watch their daughter play.
Sterling said if she could offer advice to “future me” it would be: “Just stay on top of everything and don’t let off because when you stay on top of things, especially with hockey, you have good outcomes like our weekend with Adrian [College].”
The weekend Sterling is referring to is when the Warriors, who were No. 7 in the ACHA, beat No. 2 Adrian College in two straight games, 4-3 and 2-0 before the holiday break.
Sterling smiles, set against a blue winter sky above Head Lake and without hesitation said, “We genuinely think we have a good shot at being the first team to go to nationals that is a fresh new team. So, a lot of us are really striving for that and I just hope that we can just keep building off that.”