KALKASKA — Wanted: Hockey players for northern Michigan girls team.
Requirements: Reliable transportation.
Not even from Michigan? That's OK.
That's not a literal classified ad for the Kalkaska-based K-Stars or Petoskey Northmen 19U hockey squads, but it may as well be.
Both teams have pulled players from across the state and beyond to ensure girls looking for competitive girls hockey remain an option.
Regional squads band together to stay alive
"It takes a special level of dedication for the Yoopers," said Brenda Kulbieda, whose daughter Faith plays for the Petoskey Northmen.
That's right, Yoopers. The Petoskey team is slightly more than half comprised of Upper Peninsula players.
After last season, Petoskey almost didn't have a team because of low numbers after some players aged out of 19U. Marquette faced the same fate. Northmen goalie Katelyn Duffing of Traverse City was prepared to try out for the Bay Reps boys high school team alongside her brother Gavin.
Last year, the Petoskey and Maruette played each other for a spot in the state finals, with Petoskey winning in overtime.
The simple — yet complicated, logistically — solution was to combine the former rivals into one team.
That combined squad has already played dozens of games, despite only two practices with everyone at the same site — once in Munising and once in St. Ignace, which also became the best opportunity for a team picture.
Emily Wroblewski comes from Lake Linden — 311 miles from her Petoskey-based squad. She's also the team's youngest player at age 13, playing against girls as old as 19.
Her family makes a 9.5-hour drive every other weekend to Detroit so she can play in Petoskey's Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League games.
"It's definitely unorthodox," said Blair Dzierwa, a 19-year-old from Traverse City, sophomore at Northwest Michigan College and Northmen forward. "I didn't think anybody expected this last year, given that we were rivals. You have to adapt."
The Xs and Os aren't nearly as complicated as the logistics of it all for Petoskey head coach Jim VanAntwerp.
"I have exactly 500 miles between my girls," VanAntwerp said. "I have girls in a different time zone. What they're willing to give up to do this is amazing."
Dances, movies and weekend get-aways with high school friends? Most of that goes out the window when the entire weekend is consumed by hockey and travel.
"Nobody else is this dumb or dedicated," VanAntwerp joked. "I don't know which."
The K-Stars have a similarly interesting roster.
Players from Kalkaska, Traverse City, Cadillac and Harbor Springs add a local flavor to the roster, but it goes further.
The Stars have a goalie from Bay City, Bree Schroer. Her trip to games is often the shortest because the K-Stars often meet league teams from Detroit in Bay City for games.
Tier II 19U teams are allowed three out-of-state players, and the Stars used all three spots — two given to Ohio forwards (Dayton's Reese Gingrich and Cincinnati's Claire Bolyard) and a Kentucky defender (Kassidy Scheben).
Scheben used to play for the Cincinnati Lady SabreHawks, along with Bolyard. The Lady SabreHawks used to play the K-Stars. Now Scheben and Bolyard have teamed up with their former rivals, even though they can't make practices.
It's a 481-mile trip each way for Scheben to Kalkaska, and still 366 miles to Bay City for games from her Kentucky hometown (Union), 70 miles north of Lexington.
"It's really fun, but sometimes it's hard because not all of us are at practice," Stars forward Jordan Usiondek, a sophomore at Traverse City Central, said. "It's a pretty big commitment. Sometimes we have to leave school early to get to games."
Kids, parents band together
The K-Stars and Northmen are even intertwined.
They play in the same league. Duffing used to play for the K-Stars. One K-Stars goalie, Harbor Springs' Joey Johnston, used to play for Petoskey.
Sydney Boucher, a Cheboygan graduate who now lives in Petoskey, said the Upper and Lower peninsulas coming together for one team was a serious adjustment, but it's paid off.
"It was weird," said Boucher, a 18-year-old freshman at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey. "We knew we were now on the same team and we needed to band together. To have them come down here and want to play with us is amazing."
With two different practice groups — the Petoskey and U.P. contingents — the Northmen produce two different styles of play that get thrown together each game. They usually mesh by the end of the weekend.
"It's really a challenge," said Faith Kulbieda, a 17-year-old senior at Petoskey High School. "You're used to playing just with the people you practice with. We have to work harder than other teams to do things. When we have a line with two Petoskey people and one Marquette person, you have to adjust."
Kulbieda started playing for a team called the Petoskey Piranhas six years ago. She's only one from that team left, although three have left for the college ranks.
"This team is special because we overcome so much," said Kulbieda, who is in the Early College Program at Petoskey High School and will be going into pre-med at North Central Michigan College. "We can overcome how far we live away from each other."
The cheering section at Northmen and K-Stars tournaments is often similar — a row of moms huddled together in the cold rink under blankets.
Sitting next to each other at the Feb. 23-24 North vs. South Showcase at the Kaliseum were Traverse City's Lisa Dzierwa, Brenda Kulbieda, Chris Redding (Iron Mountain) and Julie Duffing (Kingsley).
The Mackinac Bridge closed during Sunday's final day of the North vs. South Showcase, which had U.P. hockey moms like Redding scrambling to make other arrangements before re-opening several hours later. A piece of ice had fallen off one of the bridge's towers and gone through a car window.
Redding didn't seem too concerned, saying she's been living the "hockey mom" lifestyle for 22 years as all of her children have played the sport.
"We're all such a good group of girls," said Katelyn Duffing, a senior at Traverse City St. Francis who has committed to Wayne State University for cross country. "We make it work. We can all prosper together. We're a very unique team, for sure."
K-Stars overcoming odds to be among state's elite
This season has featured more home games than the K-Stars have had since setting up shop in Kalkaska five years ago — eight out of 50.
"It's nice to sleep in our own beds and not have to stay in a hotel," Usiondek said.
Often, the team's goalies can't make it to practice from Harbor Springs and Bay City, so they hold joint sessions with the 16U team, or use a wooden goalie cutout in the crease.
"The fact we bond off the ice makes it special," said defender Aliyah Adams, a senior at Traverse City Central. "We need the friendship and connection."
That connection has resulted in a 22-10-4 record, a tournament championship in Detroit, a trip to the semifinals in Chicago, the No. 2 ranking in Michigan and No. 16 nationally in 19U Tier II, up one spot from a week ago after the win over Kensington Valley.
K-Stars head coach Kraig Visser said the travel considerations are countered by the fact that the girls don't need a tremendous amount of coaching at that age.
"By this age, it's not really as big a deal," said Visser, whose daughters Ellie and Josie are on the team. "At this age, we're just guiding them, not changing them. It's such a great sport for girls."
Adams, who used to play on boys teams, said she appreciates having a girls teams.
She had to change in the lobby while on boys teams, and didn't enjoy it before Visser recruited her to the K-Stars, where she's played each of the last 10 years.
"Every year we get new girls to bond with," Adams said. "Everybody always has a blast."