Flanery, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Last year when Penn State announced the beginning of a Division I women's hockey program, the news couldn't have arrived at a better time for one State College hockey player.
Being born and raised in State College, Pa., freshman center Jill Holdcroft has called Happy Valley home for a lot longer than most other students. While, until recently, hockey hasn't been a part of the University, it has always played a very important role in Holdcroft's life.
Holdcroft's family holds a great history within the game of hockey, including a history at Penn State. Her father, Tim Holdcroft, as well as both of her uncles, Bob and David, played for the Penn State club team in the 1980's. The freshman forward has three siblings, two older brothers, Steven and Robbie, and a younger sister, Jessalyn. Her older brother, Robbie, was the first to take part in the game at the college level, spending time in Pittsburgh with Robert Morris' Division I program from 2008-11.
Growing up, Holdcroft's life was surrounded by hockey, which is why she has played from a very early age. For two years in high school, Holdcroft was the only women playing on the State College Area high school's men's team, serving as assistant captain during her senior year.
The freshman explained that women's hockey has never been very popular, especially here in the community of State College, so growing up she commuted so that she could take part in the game she loved. Her family would make the drive for practice and games with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite club team where she played for four seasons.
While Holdcroft didn't mind the commute to Pittsburgh, she said she is very happy to see the sport growing in her backyard.
"Girl's hockey is not really big here," said Holdcroft. "So, it's really cool now to have a lot of girls playing hockey right here in my hometown. Going to Pittsburgh was the closest that girl's hockey was for me and we went to tournaments all over the country, but it's pretty cool to now watch hockey grow right here."
When the school first announced the news regarding the Division I program, Holdcroft didn't hesitate to express her interest in the Blue and White. She contacted then newly announced Penn State head coach Josh Brandwene to express her interest in the school. While Penn State was always her favorite school throughout her youth, before the Nittany Lions announced their new program, Holdcroft was torn between playing Division I hockey elsewhere, or attending Penn State as a regular student.
"I was definitely looking to play Division I hockey," said Holdcroft, "but Penn State was always an option for me. The two ended up coming together pretty early on in my college search. As soon they turned Division I, I was like, 'this is my number one school right here.'"
Eventually, the two came to a mutual agreement. Holdcroft wanted to play hockey for Penn State and coach Brandwene wanted the young hometown-native to be a Nittany Lion, as well.
Holdcroft has earned the right to call herself a significant part of the history of the game in Happy Valley. As one of 17 freshmen on the Penn State squad this season, Holdcroft has excelled on the ice. The center has played in all 18 games in the first half of the season and is currently tied for fourth in points on the team with six.
The State College native has been competing at a high level all while adjusting to a position change on the ice. Holdcroft was primarily a forward throughout most of her career, but coach Brandwene and the Nittany Lions needed her to adjust to playing the center position, where she has since thrived. Holdcroft has greatly improved in the face-off circle where she holds the third best win-percentage (.476) of those who have taken 50-plus face-offs on the team. While it has been a very different transition for the 18-year-old, she says she has drawn on prior experiences playing center and relied heavily on advice from sophomore center Jess Desorcie, who spent time with Division III Connecticut College last season before transferring to Penn State.
"I played center a little bit before," said Holdcroft, "but it was kind of a transition that I had to make (for the team). It was especially important with the systems that we work in at Penn State. I'm getting used to it and I'm getting help from some of the older girls. If I have a question, I'll ask (Jess Desorcie) about the position and where I'm supposed to be."
Since starting the season, Holdcroft has only improved within her position and for that very reason she has climbed up the depth chart. She began the season with the third line, but currently centers the second line for the Nittany Lions, which includes forwards Micayla Catanzariti and Birdie Shaw. The line change proved to be the right choice for coach Brandwene, with the line producing and bringing great intensity to the ice since they joined forces.
"We all have similar playing styles," said Holdcroft. "We like to go hard, so it's a lot of fun playing with them. We have great communication on the ice and we're all good friends off the ice, so when we're kind of struggling we all come together and talk about it. We say, 'hey, what can we do here', and figure things out. It's actually been a really fun line to be on."
There have been a few upsets and tough breaks thus far, but the Lions continue to endure the hardships and embrace the highlights together. While the Nittany Lions strive to make progress as a team in its first season, Holdcroft will continue to relish in every moment because for this 18-year-old this is more than just hockey, it's a dream come true.