When New Canaan and Guilford women’s hockey face off, so will two of the best athletes in the state’s three sports

Maddie Epke and Kaleigh Harden have known each other from lacrosse camps and tournaments. They played against each other on the ice when they were kids. They never faced each other at a high school sporting event.

That will change on Sunday evening. With plowed snow from I-95 and a clean sheet of ice at Darien Ice House, Guilford’s women’s hockey team will make the 50-mile bus ride to take on the undefeated might of New Canaan.

The game puts Connecticut’s top two high school all-around female athletes on the same playing field for the first time. There are others who are elite at a sport, and technically one could extend something like cross-country running to cross-country, indoor and outdoor track.

Yet when you look at three different team pursuits, few, if any, can compare to these two seniors.

Epke, 5-foot-8, 145 pounds, is a star in field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse for Guilford.

Harden, 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, is a soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse star in New Canaan.

They were both named GameTimeCT First Team All-States in ice hockey and lacrosse as juniors. Most recently, last fall, Epke was named GameTimeCT Field Hockey Player of the Year. She was also the 2021 Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance Female Athlete of the Year.

“Both girls are incredible athletes,” said New Canaan coach Rich Bulan.

Epke will travel to James Madison to play lacrosse.

Harden will join his sister McKenna on the North Carolina lacrosse team.

“Ten or 11 years ago we were playing pretty regularly with Guilford,” Bulan said. “Different rivalries emerged, and it kind of got dropped. A few years ago we tried something with Guilford and we just couldn’t find a date. It’s something we’ve been waiting for. impatiently.

Guilford coach Rick Binkowski said he didn’t know Harden initially. He said Bulan contacted him in the fall and said Kaleigh had a college interview commitment on the day their match was scheduled.

“They had no problem playing without her, but Rich asked if we would mind moving him,” Binkowski said. “That’s when he started talking to me about Kaleigh and how great it would be for her and Maddie to face off. I said, ‘Awesome. I’m in.'”

Well, the game was postponed again when Guilford had several players with COVID issues. Although she said she had little more than sniffles, Epke tested positive. Guilford has four players who just started playing hockey this season and two more who started playing within the past two years. Binkowski, whose team is 5-2, has a slim roster. It has Epke and Olivia Gill, who Binkowski calls “Maddie’s reflection on defense.”

Ice time is always a valuable commodity. The game was rescheduled for 8:10 p.m. Sunday. Wait. One last adjustment: ]puck drop is at 7:50 p.m.

Finally. Maddie. Kaleigh. Game on!

“(Harden) is super fast, really good hands,” Epke said. “And she’s really well known. We’ll definitely be watching out for her…she’s such a nice girl.

“I’ve heard so many good things about (Epke) in hockey,” Harden said. “My four years here, we haven’t played against Guilford. So it will be exciting. »

Epke rode a bike without training wheels when she was 2 years old.

Harden was on ice skates at the same age.

Bulan remembers going to a CT Ice Cats game to watch McKenna Harden years ago. He saw this little girl running around and wondered who the hell it was. It was Kaleigh, 9 years old.

“I asked if she was playing defense?” said Boulan. “They said, ‘I don’t think she’s really playing a position. She just takes the puck and walks away.

Harden is now a left winger with over 100 career points on a deep and talented New Canaan team.

“Kaleigh is a big player and a big scorer,” said Bulan, whose team is 13-0. “As fast as she is and as awesome as her hands are, she’d rather skate through you than around you.”

New Canaan has produced Division I hockey players and Bulan says Kaleigh could be another. When he tells this to Kaleigh’s parents, he says he gets a smile. Boyd Harden, his brothers Graham and Holmes, played lacrosse in North Carolina. Likewise, McKenna.

You get the blue image of Tar Heel.

“All I can say is that it’s rare to see someone with that kind of ability in three sports,” Bulan said.

Ditto Epke, who played on three Class M field hockey champions and a Class M lacrosse champion – coached by his mother, Wendy. An ice hockey center, Epke scored his 200th career ice hockey point on Friday in a 6-1 win over Masuk Co-op.

“Maddie is a fantastic athlete,” Binkowski said. “She’s a hard worker, a nice girl, respectful, a real leader with Olivia Gill. She’s humble. She raises the other children, always helping the younger ones. Never pretentious or too good for anyone. So supportive. On the way home after games, she sings loudly on the bus and everyone goes crazy. She comes up with ideas to work on things in practice. She ticks all the boxes.”

Looks like Epke does everything but play in the school band, except she plays bass in the Guilford Symphony Orchestra.

Epke and Harden were among the nation’s top 160 players invited by USA Lacrosse to its U-18 developmental suit in August. High school teams, travel teams, camps, honor students. Of course, all of this requires time management.

“It always keeps you busy, but I like to keep busy,” Epke said. “Every sport is big competition, but I love competition. And when I’m not, I train. A lot of people say it’s a bit crazy to go to training after training. I even coach lacrosse. Knowing why I’m doing this motivates me so much. Because I’m from such a small town, it’s crazy that I’ve come to this and I still need to prove myself to everybody.

Bulan calls Harden a free spirit, but one who is thoroughly professional when it comes to his responsibilities.

“I think I have good time management because I’m used to it,” Harden said. “I don’t know any other way. I’ve played all three since I was young. I love it. You meet new people through every sport. You are always busy. I can hang out with my best friends every day and compete against the best teams.

Until she gets a bit older and knows how to handle the lacrosse stick better, Kaleigh said she liked ice hockey better. Going to tournaments with his Ice Cat friends was so much fun. Epke said she enjoys all three sports equally, but is more drawn to lacrosse.

College coaches love to say they prefer athletes who have played multiple sports and haven’t specialized too much. Well, here are two.

“Playing three sports is something I will miss,” Harden said. “It’s so much fun. But in a way also I think it will be better. I can focus on a particular sport.

“All sports have different components. Since hockey, I’ve gotten tougher. From football I learned endurance and running too, it’s such a long game. Playing three sports has made me a better athlete.

Epke says it’s going to be weird playing sports.

“But it’s fine,” she said. “It’s going to be fun. Talking to my mum, family and former coaches they say it can excel in my game. I’ve never focused on just one sport. So who knows what the limits might be and the possibilities ?

“They always say that ice hockey uses the opposite muscles of other sports. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a serious injury. You stretch and move in different ways. Hockey is also good at using your hands while keeping your head up and it helps with the butt.

Unlike Harden, who has been to Chapel Hill many times, Epke had never been to the JMU campus in Harrisonburg, Va., before his recruiting visit.

“I never thought of that,” Epke said. “The interest came from local schools. So it was a complete shock to get him in a top 10, 15 program. I had been in a camp where the coach was. I had never contacted them. They found me. It must mean something. And, oh my God, I walked around this campus and felt something so strong.

Harden, meanwhile, grew up as a Tar Heels fan. His grandmother lives 45 minutes away. A few good friends lived even closer. She went to Carolina football and lacrosse games. And then there is the family heritage.

“Following their path is exciting,” Harden said. “McKenna (2021 GameTimeCT Lacrosse Player of the Year) and I played three sports together for three years in high school. It’s weird not having him this year. So I’m excited to play again. It’s always fun to play with his big sister.

[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123

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