Kenai goalie Lauren Baldwin makes a save during a recent game.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It’s happened before and there’s a good chance it will happen again.
Lauren Baldwin will be mistaken for something she’s not.
She was the team manager before one game. On another day she could be a fan. Perhaps next week she’ll be a player’s sister.
But when pucks are whizzing by her at nearly 100 mph, it’s tough to confuse this 17-year old with anyone else.
Nearly 10 years after it began, Baldwin’s incredible and courageous journey is in full swing as she’s the starting goalie on Kenai’s varsity hockey team, helping transform what was once known as solely a man’s sport into something women can thrive in as well.
“I’ve always had coaches say that I’m really good and people will still be shocked that I’m playing on this guys team,” she explained. “Everyone at the school supports me a lot. It’s just great.”
While occasionally reminded of her gender, most of the time, Baldwin just considers herself one of the guys.
“I feel a little bit different because I feel sometimes people don’t think girls are as good as guys and I know that I have to prove it to them,” she said. “But once I get playing the game, I just feel like everyone else.”
She certainly plays like it, too.
Owning an impressive 2.84 goals against average and a formidable .895 save percentage, Baldwin has started all but one game this season in leading the Kardinals to a first-place finish in the North Star Conference with a 10-0 mark and a 15-4-1 overall record.
Kenai coach Nate Kiel has coached Baldwin for several years and was confident she could handle the primary role.
“I had no reservations at the beginning of the season in terms of her being our No. 1 goalie,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for me.
“I’ve known all along from watching her through the years that she’s not just one of the best female goalies, but one of the best goalies,” Kiel added. “I really feel this year she’s one of the better goalies in the state.”
Had Baldwin’s parents, Randy and Arlette, not moved here from California, however, her unique talent may not have been recognized.
“Maybe that was the thing that was meant to be for her to go on and be able to use this God-given gift for whatever,” Arlette said. “Fate took control.”
Did it ever.
In the crease
Like most younger siblings, Baldwin the youngest of four children wanted to do whatever her older brother, Trevor, was doing.
When he took up hockey, she did, too.
After one season of playing forward, Baldwin was literally forced into the net at the age of 7 or 8 when the coach rotated each player between the pipes.
“And I went in, put the gear on, became goalie and I was like, ‘Wow. I really like this,’” she recalled.
The rest is history.
At times, though, it wasn’t easy being one of the only girls on the circuit.
“It was just me and (Soldotna’s) Whitney Ischi. There was no one really,” she explained. “Eventually Whitney went to a girls’ team and it was just me and I was on the boys’ team. I was the only girl.”
It obviously didn’t take long for her to overcome that.
As the JV goalie her freshman year, Baldwin was surprisingly awarded a varsity start early that season against the Kenai’s archrival, Soldotna.
And despite being frightened to death, she didn’t disappoint.
In fact, she proved she belonged, denying 15 shots in leading Kenai to a 7-0 rout of the Stars on Nov. 8, 2003.
“I was scared,” she said of her feelings at the time. “I cannot let these older kids down because the coach decided to put in some girl freshman.”
Even in returning to JV for the rest of that season and her sophomore campaign as well, the shutout in her high school debut provided her the confidence she’ll carry with her for the remainder of her career.
“It just made me feel like I can play with anyone ... I can play with older guys and still do good,” said Baldwin, who rotated with another varsity goalie her junior year. “And everyone will now know that I am still as good as the guys.”
Having played on only one girls team in her life, Baldwin knows what it’s like to feel detached.
Traveling to Florida as part of the U-16 state champion Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association team at the age of 14, she was the only female player out of the 12 teams in attendance.
“I kind of stood out a bit. The boys always underestimate me, but I’ve been playing with them ever since I was little,” said Baldwin, a fan of NHL goaltender Dominik Hasek. “They come out expecting it to be easy and then they’re like, ‘Whoa. She’s really good.’ I think I surprised them a bit.”
That’s usually what happens.
When taking the ice against an unfamiliar opponent, Baldwin hungers for the moment her name is announced, allowing her to whip off her helmet and reveal herself the way a magician would following a disappearing act.
“It never gets old. It’s actually always fun to hear somebody say that,” she said of people talking about her. “I’ve never actually had people be mean to me. More people are nice to me on the ice than ever.”
It probably helps that her teammates are extra protective.
Her brother even attacked a well-wisher while playing together in U-16 Midgets.
“I had stopped a breakaway. Somehow the kid comes down and hits his stick on my pad and says, ‘Good game,’” Baldwin recalled. “He skates around and I turn around and I see my brother just punching this kid in the face. He’s just attacking this kid.”
Occasionally provoking the opposition herself, Baldwin sort of relishes that security.
“I know they’re protecting me and I kind of like it,” she said. “Because these guys will just get hammered if they touch me.”
And while it’s obviously more demanding, she would still remain with the boys, even if she were presented the opportunity of playing on a girls team.
“They’re a lot faster and they make it so much better. I don’t how to say it but they’re just strong. They’re faster,” she said. “It just helps your game so much.”
At some point, though, she’ll have to switch.
Just the beginning
A 3.6 student with an interest in criminal law, Baldwin is contemplating playing in the Midwest Elite Hockey League and acclimating herself with the slower pace of the women’s game before hopefully attending a quality university on the East Coast.
And at the same time, of course, finding her way in front of flying pucks.
“I think I’ll end up doing really well with the girls after I get used to their play a little bit more, because it is a lot different than boys,” Baldwin said. “Then I hope to make a big name for myself in girls hockey.”
And there’s a good chance she will.
From the moment her daughter took the ice, Arlette knew she’d be successful.
“We’re pretty amazed,” she said. “All our children are fairly talented athletes and we’re proud of all of them. Lauren probably has the best chance to go on and go the farthest with her sport.”
Kiel would agree.
“I think she has a bright future,” he said. “I think Lauren can go make a run at a D-I program.
“I think she has the skills, she has the athleticism and she has the poise under pressure to stick with it.”
After this season, opposing teams probably feel the same way.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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