KALKASKA — Ninety-four miles is a sacrifice, so the lanes of U.S. 131 must serve more use than travel.
The route makes for a music recital, a discussion board or a bedroom, depending on the day.
Stacy Riebow spent three days per week throughout the winter wearing her Chevy Suburban’s treads into the main road linking the stay-at-home mom’s family house in Stanwood to the Kaliseum in Kalkaska or game sites, driving her daughter Josie, 12, to K-Stars hockey practice.
“It’s about three hours on the road for a practice — in good weather,” Stacy Riebow said.
The distance is inconvenient for Stacy, whose husband often works out of state. The drive always is her responsibility.
It’s a drag for Kyle, Josie’s older brother, who occasionally tags along to avoid spending time alone.
And it’s tough for Josie because she gets car sick when reading, which means she has to finish all of her homework at school.
But it’s important to all of them, especially Josie, who has found her place as a member of the all-girls 12U Tier 2 hockey team.
It’s her first full season with the K-Stars after playing on boys teams in Big Rapids.
“It’s totally worth it. I have gotten so much better this year, and I don’t think I would have gotten this much better if I had stayed in Big Rapids,” Riebow said. “I really don’t. Everybody is so nice here. The coaches sometimes in Big Rapids favored their kids. Here, it’s nothing like that at all. Everyone is treated exactly the same.”
Stacy Riebow watches her daughter closely. She was the lone parent in the Kaliseum’s rinkside stands — a fraction of her week that will be spent enjoying a parent’s all-time favorite: cold bleacher seating. Other parents viewed practice through a window from the much warmer concourse.
The success the K-Stars are experiencing isn’t the top of a list of reasons why Stacy continues to make one of the longest treks of many K-Star families. Others live as close as Kalkaska, Traverse City and Lake Leelanau while some drive from as far away as Cadillac, Bay City and Mt. Pleasant.
“The team plays well, but everything about the team is fantastic,” Stacy said. “All the girls get along. They don’t fight. All the coaches are great. All the parents are great. It’s nice not to have kids and parents fighting. It’s rare.
“Having a team as good as this, as in the girls, parents and coaches, is better than coming in first.”
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The K-Stars win a lot too, and head coach Kraig Visser feels the team really shouldn’t be as good as it is considering all the obstacles players face.
Visser’s daughter, Ellie Visser, plays on the team, but her presence wouldn’t change his opinion. He, like the other handful of father-coaches who lead practices know there’s something special about what the 14 girls have accomplished.
The K-Stars are ranked No. 1 in Tier 2 Michigan girls hockey and No. 6 in the U.S. with a 20-4-4 record and eyes on a state championship in March, according to myhockeyrankings.com.
The girls won January’s Chicago Winter Classic, sweeping four teams from Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin and swept four more out-of-state teams at the Irish Cup, at Notre Dame University in February. The team also is in the midst of the postseason after winning their regular-season title without a loss.
“I was freaking out,” said 12-year-old Jordan Usiondek. “I have never experienced first (in the state) or sixth (in the country).”
The girls and their families have refused to be defined, limited or stopped by issues with recruitment, travel logistics and the non-existence of a widespread girls youth program
“They have had so much fun,” Visser said. “That’s what it’s about, giving them a fun, competitive place to play where they can improve.”
The climb to the top hasn’t been easy.
Visser and a host of other parents and coaches spent the past half-dozen years assembling the K-Stars. The program has shifted age groups, tiers and towns to ensure the success.
“We’re just trying to ride the wave as long as possible,” said Chris Adams, assistant coach and father of Paige Adams, who plays on the team.
The program began in Traverse City within the Grand Traverse Hockey Association in 2010 as a 10U house team looking to build and grow to the next level.
Visser looked to schedule a game against the most struggling Tier 2 team he could find during its second season. It didn’t go well — a 26-0 loss.
The program continued to ascend before officially leaping to Tier 2 in 2013-14, when the team had Tier 3 and Tier 2 12U girls squads, along with a number of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds learning the game with them. The 12U Tier 2 girls made a run to the state championship game that year, but lost.
The K-Stars were officially born shortly after whenVisser and Adams led the team’s move to Kalkaska, a change prompted by differing ideas on what age to begin all-girls hockey in Traverse City.
“We wanted to begin our program at the younger ages,” Adams said. “It’s really tough to find 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls to come and start playing hockey (for the first time).”
In their first year in Kalkaska, the K-Stars fielded Tier 2 and Tier 3 14U teams, and this season, the program’s first pair of Tier 2 teams at 12U and 14U.
“Every girl that has come to this team over the last seven years has meant so much,” Visser said. “It’s the total package now. I grew up loving hockey, and I’m very passionate about passing it on to other kids.”
The two teams always practice together, and siblings dot both rosters, but this season’s 12U team has topped the charts.
The K-Stars have scorched most of their opponents on the ice, including multiple boys teams and one of only three Tier 1 girls teams in the state.
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Players like Josie Riebow are crucial to the K-Stars’ success — distant, skilled players who complement the local talent base and add depth to the roster.
Goalies Madison Nahgahgwon (Mt. Pleasant) and Briana Schroer (Bay City) practice with boys teams closer to their homes and only travel for games.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate kids coming to our program from that far away,” Visser said. “It’s a huge sacrifice, and our team wouldn’t be what it is without them.”
Visser never knows when he might stumble upon a player like Riebow, who he approached after seeing her at a tournament. He hands out flyers to local girls he sees on the run, he asks his players to bring friends to the rink, and he conducts ‘Try Hockey for Free’ sessions, an effort supported by USA Hockey across the country.
“Girls just don’t think of girls hockey,” Visser said. “You have to put it in front of them. The more it’s in front of them, the more they think they can do that. It’s not uncommon for a girl to go try softball, but it’s unusual for a girl to go try hockey.”
Once the girls lace up their skates, it tends to seal the deal.
“There is no sport with this kind of speed these girls can do on foot,” Visser said. “It’s almost like weightlessness when you get out there on skates. So many girls I have gotten involved in hockey absolutely love it for that reason.”
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It’s not just the wins or success on the ice. When Visser began coaching girls hockey someone told him “Girls hockey isn’t about hockey.”
The social aspect is a key component, and families are traveling to Kalkaska for much more than just hockey.
“We have this special bond that no one can break,” Molly McKeever, 12, said. “and we love each other so much.”
Usiondek has seen it from the start, growing with the program’s Traverse City roots since the age of 7.
The K-Stars provide her a competitive outlet, give her a supportive and successful team and helped her develop a whole new set of friends outside her daily social circle.
Not to mention some unforgettable road trips.
“If I never knew coach Kraig and coach Adams, I wouldn’t be here,” Usiondek said. “I would probably still be playing boys. I am just happy they started this program.”
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The outlook for the K-Stars is at once bright and shaky.
Twelve players are 12 years old, making up the core which continues to shift the team’s age bracket. Seven of them have been with the program since its days in Traverse City.
Unless an infusion of new, young talent replenishes the 12U talent pool, the younger teams will phase out.
A state championship may be the 12U K-Stars’ final stellar performance.
On the brighter side, a number of talented 13-year-olds are waiting to embrace the graduating class to next year’s 14U team, which could have the combined talent and depth to compete for a national title, a prize 12U girls hockey doesn’t have.
It would be the latest transformation in the life of the K-Stars, setting the stage for future 16U and 18U teams before the flow of new players halts.