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Playing hockey has, for the most part, been a big part of Beaver Dam senior Alyssa Heim’s life.

The skater knows she’s fortunate to be with the Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam Alliance — a 12-school girls hockey co-op that also includes Waupun, Wayland and Dodgeland — as she leads the way in her final postseason appearance when they play host to Green Bay East co-op tonight at the Beaver Dam Family Ice Arena.

Heim’s teammates include fellow Beaver Dam seniors TJ Lindeman, Eve Lundin, Dayna Jones, Jenna Kirschbaum, who all entered high school without the benefit of an all-girls youth hockey program.

Those five had to play on youth teams that also included boys.

“It was fun playing with the boys, but when I started playing with the girls, it was just a whole different fun,” said Heim who didn’t play on an all-girls team until she was a freshman at Beaver Dam. “I could relate to the people I was playing with and I made some lifelong friends through it. I’m really glad I started playing girls hockey.”

Humble beginnings

Beaver Dam’s all-girls youth program that is now called the Wildfire didn’t start to take off until the summer before Heim’s sophomore season. That’s when the Wildfire manager Rachel Damon — who also coaches one of the Beaver Dam Tornados youth softball teams — brought almost 10 inexperienced girls to a girls development camp being run by Paul Uttech, one of the co-head coaches for the Alliance.

“She really was a shot in the arm for getting us over hump with the number of players involved,” said Uttech, who has seen participation numbers grow from around 10 participants to 41 this season — compared to 50 in the all-boys program — and now have an 8-and-under, a 10-and-under, a 12-and-under and a 14-and-under teams. Uttech said he has around 15-20 more in his girls development program as well.

“It’s really blossomed in the last couple of years,” Uttech said. “It’s just exploded.”

What helped the Wildfire’s cause was after its inaugural season, the co-op Beaver Dam High School was a part of joined forces with a larger co-op led by Fond du Lac, forming the Alliance. In their first season together last year, the Alliance went 16-8 and qualified for the WIAA state tournament. Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam has improved to 20-3 this season and has been the top-ranked team in the state for much of 2018-2019.

Uttech said it helped give the youth program visibility among the young girls in the area.

“The success of the high school club now has something to do with it, but I wouldn’t say it’s really driven what’s going on right now,” Uttech said. “I think it’s a function of having a commitment to girls youth and just generating excitement about that.

“Everybody is having a lot of fun.”

Damon said making sure all the girls have a positive experience will help sustain the growth of the youth program for years to come.

“The biggest thing is making sure the girls understand that you don’t have to be the best skater out there,” Damon said. “You don’t really have to know how to skate if you’re interested. For me, it’s fun watching them develop.

“I have a couple girls at the 8U level that can barely stand up and they come off the ice and are excited that they touch the puck. It’s a positive atmosphere.”

Coaches key

Uttech said it helps to have the right kind of coaches on the ice with the girls as well. While Uttech coaches the Alliance, he still has a big influence on the youth program. But he said while it’s nice to have fathers coach, it’s even better to have a female coach on the ice.

That’s where Rachel Ruis comes in. She moved to Beaver Dam from Minnesota five months ago, bringing 11 years of girls hockey coaching experience with her, so it was a no-brainer to let her help out at the youth level.

“She’s clearly got a solid hockey background,” Uttech said. “I’ve talked to some of the U14 girls, the girls that will be coming to the high school next year — they love her. She’s just a really nice person. She’s very enthused about girls hockey and helping girls develop.

“I think the benefit you get from somebody like her who seems to have a positive approach with the girls because a lot of these girls don’t have a lot of experience. They need somebody with patience. They need someone who’s encouraging and supportive, and keeps it fun.”

In her short time living in Beaver Dam, Ruis has noticed the commitment in sustaining an all-girls youth hockey program in Beaver Dam.

“The amount of skaters and the skills they have in only two or three years under their belt is pretty crazy,” Ruis said. “The girls that are playing with Wildfire have a lot of enthusiasm for the sport and for the teams. The little kids love watching the high school players and even just spending time at the rink, running around watching the other teams. It’s pretty amazing how fast Beaver Dam has gone from not having a girls program to where the girls program is at.”

Youth idols

Damon said the Beaver Dam skaters for the Alliance show their faces when the Wildfire are playing. Some even officiate youth games.

“When these high school girls come and participate or root for the younger girls, that’s huge,” Damon said.

Heim — who leads the Alliance with 43 points (26 goals, 17 assists) — has noticed her popularity among the youth, which has only seen her and the Alliance play in four home games at the Beaver Dam Family Ice Arena this season.

“It’s just something I never could’ve imagined happening,” she said. “Just to see all these girls look up to me, it makes all the difference. It makes me want to play even harder — not just play well, but be a good role model, and be a good student and citizen in the community and not just hockey.”

With the commitment to all-girls youth hockey, a friendly atmosphere and a we’ll-take-all mentality, Damon said, “if we continue these opportunities for girls and playing as a team, the end result is that this will funnel to the high school team.”

Uttech agreed that a successful feeder program for the high school team is vital.

“It’s impossible to sustain a high school team without doing that,” he said.

Follow Mark McMullen on Twitter @mmcmull2 or contact him at 920-356-6754.

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