With hopes of following in the footsteps of three Kelowna Secondary School graduates, the Owls’ Lonica McKinney will follow her dream next week on a Field Hockey Canada NextGen training tour in San Diego.
McKinney, a 16-year-old striker/midfielder and multi-sport athlete who was a key figure in KSS earning a silver medal at the B.C. School Sports senior AAA championship in November, was named recently to the Canadian women’s Junior Development Squad.
The 26 members of the team have been identified as having the potential to compete in junior tournaments (Junior World Cup, Junior Pan Am Games, Youth Olympics etc) and possibly graduate to the senior national team.
It’s a similar route taken by former Owls, Danielle Hennig, Abigail Raye and Natalie Sourisseau, all of whom went on the play for Canada’s national team and 394 international games among them.
Hennig, with 137 caps, is still with the Canadian team as an assistant captain, while Raye (155) and Sourisseau (102) have retired from the national squad and are playing in the Netherlands and Belgium respectively.
Although relatively new to field hockey, McKinney is well aware of the exploits of the KSS alumni and is looking forward to her own first major exposure to the national program.
“The big thing for me is building my confidence in California (Feb. 7-17) because the junior development tryouts were quite intimidating — I wasn’t used to competing against older girls with a lot more experience,” says McKinney, one of the youngest players in the NextGen group. “I’m also really looking forward to developing friendships so that I’m more comfortable on the field and better able to build chemistry. I’m sure that will lead to more fluid and natural play for me.”
To hear her coaches speak of McKinney’s natural ability and penchant for hard work, it’s likely the Grade 11 student won’t take long to find a comfort zone.
“Lonica is a tenacious player and the ability to win the ball is a key reason she stood out among the many who tried out for the squad,” says Steph Andrews, assistant coach of the women’s national team. “Improving on her technical skills will be a focus for Lonica, but she picks up on them quickly, which is a real attribute for her.”
Raw talent is a common theme when it comes to assessing McKinney’s play.
“The first thing that stands out is her speed,” says Brian DeMug, an assistant coach with the KSS Owls. “She’s very, very quick and she has what I would call an almost perfect field hockey stride — short and choppy. And she’s able to change direction quickly.”
While only 5’2” (“I’m really 5’ 1 1/2”, but I lie”), McKinney is strong on her feet and because she has such a fine sense of space and time on the pitch, she makes up for her shortage of reach.
While DeMug agrees with Andrews that McKinney’s technical skills — particularly her stick handling — are a work in progress, he’s confident she will improve quickly.
“Lonica works hard at everything she does, and being with the development team, I know she’s in good hands as far as being taught the best way to improve technically,” says DeMug. “Once she gets up to speed on technique, her pace and tenacity will carry her through. She’s a raw talent and has the characteristics you can’t teach.”
Ben Fecht, coach of the Okanagan regional team, concurs:
“I’m sure it was Lonica’s speed and determination that stood out for the national team coaches. All of the players they look at have considerable skill, but most of the time they’re looking for intangibles. And Lonica definitely has a huge upside in that area.”
Being selected to the national development squad in field hockey is an unlikely scenario. McKinney spent the first decade of her life in Roblin, Man. — about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg (with a population of about 1,600). And it wasn’t until 2014 when students from nearby Okanagan Mission Secondary arrived at Anne McClymont Elementary to introduce the Grade 7 class to the game, that she saw a field hockey stick for the first time.
“In a small town like Roblin, there’s not much to do except play hockey and baseball, so that’s what I did mostly,” explained McKinney, who became quite proficient at figure skating and dance as well. She also took up soccer on a whim so she could try out (and make) a team competing at the Manitoba Summer Games.
Since arriving in Kelowna, McKinney has played goal for Kelowna minor hockey rep teams and two years ago helped the bantam A girls win a provincial gold medal in Kamloops. She played four years with Team BC’s female baseball teams, winning Western Canada gold and silver and a national bronze medal.
She also snuck in some hours to play for the KSS AAA soccer team last spring and tries to find time for skiing and golfing.
While ice hockey was her preeminent passion and she still plays for a house league team (as a forward) — as well as a house league baseball team with the boys — McKinney’s main focus is now field hockey.
“I always find a new sport interesting, but with field hockey, it seemed to combine a lot of the skills I had learned in other sports and I was able to get pretty good at it early on,” she explains. “It quickly became my new passion and I slowly eased off on the other sports.”
Following her first exposure to the game at AME, McKinney played two seasons with the OKM senior team — although only in Grade 8 and 9 at the time — and joined the senior Owls in Grade 10 at KSS where she was presented with the top female sportsmanship award and was selected as the top overall Grade 10 student (with a grade average of 96%).
An easy choice as a regional team member in the spring of 2017, McKinney was selected at a provincial tournament to one of three B.C. U18 teams and was chosen as an all-star at the national championships.
From there she was invited to Western Canadian ID camp and eventually to the national development camp tryouts. During the selection process, she also represented Canada at the prestigious U.S. National Festival in West Palm Beach, Fla. in November.
Because her potential has been recognized at the local, provincial and national level so quickly, she’s now pursuing avenues leading to a post-secondary school that will include playing field hockey.
She’s been in contact with a half-dozen American schools interested in having her play following high school graduation in 2019. Garnering a full-ride scholarship at an NCAA Division 1 school would be her route in the States.
Several Canadian universities have also expressed significant interest in McKinney, which she says she would love to pursue because of national training conveniences, but at this point it is cost prohibitive for her.
“I’m leaving my options open, but going down to the States is my thought at this point,” she adds. “I’ve been trying to get as much advice as possible from a lot of different people, including Dani (Hennig), Izzy (Fraser, Grade 12 student named recently to the senior national team) and Hannah (Haughn, national team member and Team BC coach) and “coach B” (KSS coach, Arnar Bernhardsson).
“We talk almost every day and his main advice is to go where I’m going to get a great education because that’s what is going to carry me through life. So that’s definitely a priority.”