Girls high school hockey is still in its infancy in Illinois, and Oak Park and River Forest High School is one of only 10 teams that will compete for the 2008 Blackhawk Cup state championship in March.

The team is wrapping up its second season under the OPRF banner, having played as a Fenwick team in previous seasons. Although the team competes as OPRF, players also come from four other schools – Fenwick, Guerin, Niles West, and Nazareth. The team has a wide range of experience. While a few players took up hockey at a very early age, several had never played the sport before joining the high school team. Two players (Casey Hutzenlaub last season, Samantha Zitzer this season) have been honorable mention selections to the all-state team.

The range of abilities and the four-year difference between freshman and seniors presents a difficult challenge for head coach Erin O’Grady. This is Erin’s first year behind the OPRF bench, following a successful 2006-07 season when she coached the Highland Park Falcons to the girls 16 and under state championship.

Growing up in London, Ontario, Erin was on skates at the age of two and began playing hockey shortly after that. She started out on girls teams, but quickly switched to playing with boys for the higher level of competition. When she reached her teens, however, the boys game became more physical, and she went back to girls hockey.

Erin left home to spend her last two high school years at Culver Academy in Indiana, where she was a member of that school’s first girls hockey team. O’Grady’s ultimate goal in moving to the United States was a college hockey scholarship. After looking at colleges on the east coast and in the Midwest, Erin chose Ohio State University, where she played four years of Division 1 hockey.

According to O’Grady, the transition from an upper level high school program to college hockey was difficult, but she made it successfully. Her name still appears on several top-10 lists in the Ohio State record book, and she holds the school record with a six-game goal-scoring streak. One of the highlights of her college career was being selected for a Western Collegiate Hockey Association all-star team that faced off against Team USA, prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics. Erin also wore the “C” as the team’s captain during her senior season.

As the season winds down, O’Grady thinks the team is peaking at the right time. Before beginning the single elimination Blackhawk Cup playoffs, the Huskies will participate in the Founders Cup, a round-robin tiered playoff involving four other teams. O’Grady says the team is playing well enough to reach the finals. After that, it’s on to the single elimination Blackhawk Cup, where No. 1 New Trier awaits the winner of the opening OPRF-Barrington game.

O’Grady is wrapping up a master’s degree in secondary education at DePaul and would eventually like to teach high school English (are you reading this OPRF?). She plans to be back on the OPRF bench next season, and I can’t think of a better role model for the players.

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