Hockey worth the journey

By now, the 180-mile roundtrip drive to hockey practice twice a week has become part of Sam Madej's normal routine.

Sure, the McHenry County-to-Milwaukee commute the Huntley senior makes with Woodstock North senior Sierra Meiners can become tedious. Throw in out-of-state weekend tournaments that take the girls as far east as New Hampshire or to countless other destinations, and time slips away even faster.

But the steady dose of travel is part of a hectic lifestyle Madej and Meiners have embraced since they made the jump to the Tier I AAA Milwaukee Admirals last summer. The season stretches from August to March, when the Admirals will play upward of 60 games. Throught it all two local teammates, who started playing hockey together at the Crystal Ice House when they were 5, have maintained a normal teenage existence.

Doing so hasn't always been easy, especially when Madej and Meiners also count varsity sports among their normal priorities. But sacrifice in the name of a hockey career that will continue in college for Madej and Meiners is simply part of the deal.

"That's the thing about hockey – you're just busy all the time," said Madej, who also plays for Huntley's lacrosse team. "Sometimes, you don't really have time to hang out with your school friends and so hockey kind of becomes like your family."

Meiners manages to fit hockey into a busy sporting life that includes tennis in the fall and softball in the spring. Despite her time on the ice bumping up against both of her other athletic endeavors at Woodstock North, Meiners has kept up with all three.

The secret, she said, is keeping things in the proper perspective.

"When hockey is bumping up against tennis or softball, there's pretty much no time at all," she said. "I'm pretty much at the sport and then I'm home sleeping and then I'm at school and at the sport. That's the hard part."

Meiners will play hockey and study nursing at Division III Finlandia University in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Even though hockey remains her future, she finds value in helping her high school teams achieve success. Devoting as much time to normal activities has been part of the balancing act Meiners has learned to manage.

Transitioning to an out-of-state hockey program from Team Illinois, however, added to the challenge.

On their Tuesday and Thursday travel days, Meiners and Madej leave Woodstock around 5 p.m., driving 90 minutes into Wisconsin. They arriving in time to go through off-ice workouts with a personal trainer before skating until around 10 p.m. By the time they leave at around 10:30 p.m., they won't arrive back home until after midnight.

Despite the rigors of their schedules, Madej and Meiners have kept up with everything – including their school work. Meiners holds a 3.5 grade-point average while Madej has maintained a 3.7 GPA. At times, their hockey schedules may force them to miss an occasional day of school or a homecoming dance or time with their friends, but neither of the girls balks at the commitment level they've had to live up to.

"It's kind of hard sometimes," said Madej, who will play hockey and study physical therapy at Stevenson University in suburban Baltimore. "You just have to plan ahead and your friends just have to know that you're busy, but that you have a commitment that's going to be worth it in the end."

Admirals U-19 coach and director of women's hockey Bud Simon said the routine isn't for everyone. In addition to the travel required just to practice in Milwaukee, Madej and Meiners had to adjust to higher expectations, forcing them to work even harder to find a niche with their new teams.

In 39 games this season, Meiners, a forward, has scored nine goals and had five assists while Madej, a defenseman, has tallied one goal and seven assists in 45 games. Simon has been impressed with how both girls have handled the extra work load – all while remaining grounded with their responsibilities back home.

"I think if you would have asked them five months ago how they were adjusting, they would have said, 'I didn't realize it would be this tough'," Simon said. "But after being in the trenches for the past five months, I think they're stronger for going through what they have had to go through."

In the midst of their non-stop lives, Madej and Meiners don't feel like they've missed out on anything as they begin the stretch run toward high school graduation. Although both consider themselves normal high school athletes, both girls revel in the uniqueness that hockey has added to their lives.

"It definitely sparks up a lot of conversation with people," said Meiners, who started as a figure skater. "They'll say, 'Girls actually play hockey?' But it's pretty cool that I'm able to participate in this kind of a sport."

Even though college hockey means the end of the competitive road, Madej and Meiners wouldn't trade the experience for anything – regardless of the time and effort it took to get them to this point.

"(Playing college hockey) is what I've wanted since I was five years old and that's what I told myself when I work hard," Madej said. "I haven't been playing hockey for the last 12 years for nothing.

"At times, you'll say, 'Do I really have to go?', But what makes you better is going when you really don't want to. That's when your love for the game takes over."