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Delaney Keane, Siena Letendre, Peyton Abrams, Maeve Kelly, Tori Donahue, Eliza Barker, Lauren Avedisian. Goalie Flora Meunier

Girls hockey players in South County will no longer have to rack up miles or play on co-ed teams to get their opportunities on the ice.

The Southern Rhode Island Youth Hockey Association is introducing a girls hockey program beginning this fall, with four teams across three age groups set to suit up as the SRI Sirens. It is just the second girls hockey program in the state, joining the Cranston-based Rhode Island Sting.

“These are SRI players. Most of them grew up in our organization,” said SRI president Jordan Novak Sr. “As soon as they got to be an older age, if they wanted to play girls hockey, they had to go elsewhere. We have one of the best facilities in the region. We have an established board, we have the coaches who are willing to do it. We knew we had the ability to field a team and give them more of an opportunity.”

The Sirens will field two U12 teams, one U14 squad and one U19 team. The teams will play in the Eastern Select Girls Hockey League, which features teams from around New England, mostly in the Boston area. The U12 and U14 teams will play year-round. The U19 season begins in the fall before giving way to high school hockey in the winter. The Sirens will practice and play home games at Boss Arena on the campus of the University of Rhode Island.

The SRI Junior Rams have been a fixture at Boss Arena since the early 2000s, when the arena’s construction provided new hockey opportunities for an area of the state that had never had home ice. Boys teams at the local high schools got their start around the same time, and the South County Storm girls team – a co-op program drawing players from Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown High School – made its debut in 2011.

Girls who want to play hockey grow up skating on co-ed teams that tend to be made up mostly of boys. That arrangement has worked well enough at the younger age groups and will remain. The new Sirens program will provide an opportunity for girls at a time when they might be tempted to drift away from the sport.

“When players hit the age of 14, that’s when hitting is allowed,” Novak said. “We saw a drop off on enrollment of girls when they hit that age. If they’re not playing all girls hockey, they quit the sport. It didn’t make a lot of sense to lose girls’ interest due to the contact. They needed a non-contact option for playing, to bridge that gap before they get to high school.”

According to USA Hockey, participation in girls and women’s hockey has grown by 34 percent over the past 10 years. The SRI program saw it first-hand, with more and more girls signing up for the Junior Rams. That sparked the creation of the Sirens.

“We’ve had a huge influx of girls coming into the program,” Novak said. “We had a U14 team that is primarily run by one of our coaches, Conn Kelly. He kind of started the movement. His daughter Maeve is a very good player. We had a bunch of girls around that age range. They started to build the foundation of the program, getting the girls together, doing tournaments, and that’s really where the momentum started.”

The plan was to start a girls program in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic took that off the table. A year later, it’s go time on an even bigger scale than originally planned. Sixty-six players are on the rosters of the four Sirens teams, hailing from South County, Newport County, Kent County and Southeastern Connecticut.

“We were in a unique position with our organization and the amount of girls we had in our program, that we felt it was viable to start this next program and bring in girls from around the region, that there was an enough opportunity to make some additional teams,” Novak said.

The Sirens program has already received support from their rink-mates, the URI women’s club hockey team, in the form of offering advice to players and attending practices.

“When the girls get to watch them play, it creates inspiration,” Novak said. “And now it’s kind of building on itself where the girls from the older age groups are inspiring the younger girls. We’re starting to see more and more girls get right into it. Now it’s just a matter of improving things to get girls hockey to the same level of boys hockey in terms of interest and opportunities.”

The Sirens will make their debut at Boss Arena with a three-game set on Saturday, Sept. 11.

It’ll be the beginning of a new era.

“It’s going to be a big day,” Novak said. “A day that’s a long time coming. And a day that says girls hockey is really here, that we want to provide that opportunity. I think it only goes up from here.”

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