Katherine Murphy displays a modest maturity as she sits outside the Academic Office, stumbling her way to an answer filled with “uhhs” and “umms” and awkward pauses. Distracted occasionally by passersby, she gives a coy wave as if not to be rude. She stares off to her left, conjuring an image of three people whom she describes, fondly, as her favorite hockey player, her favorite actor and a dead person – Jeff Skinner, Zac Efron and Heath Ledger.
“This is actually an icebreaker we used in one of my classes,” said Murphy, the freshman forward turned defenseman for the Robert Morris women’s hockey team. “I was like, ‘uhh.’”
Her shoulders dip in exasperation, finally relaxing from the nervous energy that drove her to shuffle in her seat. She sits with her hands on her lap under the table, arms close to her body apparently trying not to offend. Despite this, she’s inviting to the world while remaining closed to them.
Now Murphy, the first North Carolinian to play for Robert Morris, sits before the world, a far reach from the girl who at six would get car sick on long drives to hockey tournaments up and down the east coast. Sitting in the back seat with her sister, Colleen, playing Gamecube until she was nauseous. Or watching Shrek, reciting every word and calling the shots before they happened. They may have gotten on their parents nerves, she admits.
Murphy has grown to be an independent young woman now. Spending some weekends going into the city of Raleigh to see the food truck rodeos and try all the desserts. She can still recite most of Shrek. She insists she doesn’t get car sick anymore, a side effect of travelling for what seems to be every weekend since she was six. Her personality shining through the nervous façade she attempts to create as a barrier. She sits guarded, but unable to stop herself from being the extrovert she is. She speaks softly, but firmly.
Like a fox, she’s clever and calculated. She’s comfortable while on edge. She’s just a normal yet extraordinary person.
On the way into the winter break, RMU head coach Paul Colontino called his assistants together for a discussion. He’d speak with the players later to confer, but for now, he was going to make a decision. In the recruiting process they’d noticed that Murphy had played defense before in her hockey career. This she had, by her own admission, starting on defense when she started playing around the age of six. However she’d made the move to forward at age ten and hasn’t looked back since. Moving into the midpoint of her freshman season, she would be making the change.
It wasn’t unprecedented. In October, senior Katelyn Scott made the exact same switch. But now, similar to her sister at Northeastern, a freshman was making the move. Not just any freshman, that is. This was a five-foot three-inch freshman.
Her size hasn’t hindered her, however. She runs the ice like a chess master does their board, simply willing the pieces into position. Murphy draws the mistakes out of her opponents with a focus that borders on criminal. Putting the pressure on them to make the perfect decisions, her mental barrage appears too much for opponents twice her size as she simply maneuvers around them with ease. If nothing else, she can shoot a puck like a cue ball in billiards straight on the tape of a teammate for the break.
“We always call it ‘Breaking out the Protractor.’ I think the kids who played a lot of pool when they’re younger, or even now, understand angles on the ice really well,” said coach Colontino. “She just understands those angles. And she’ll make what we call indirect passes, quite often where she can just — boom, off boards and hit her teammate right on the tape. That just kind of goes with her overall hockey IQ, that’s kind of a tough skill, not everybody can do it. She handles it with ease.”
Similar to her ability to find a teammate with a pass at all times and from any angle, Murphy seems natural on the opposite side of the rink as well. In her time on defense this season, she’s amassed 11 blocks in 10 games while playing on the third pairing alongside senior Kelsey Gunn. For those on the outside looking in, it seems like a painful change of pace from the life of a forward racing up the side boards. Altering her mindset from that of a closer to the one closing out the gap on an opposing forward, Murphy says she’s up for the challenge.
“I kind of like it, like a good challenge,” said Murphy. “Go out there and try to get the shot blocked, just kind of in the moment. Like you see it and just want to do everything you can to prevent them from getting a good opportunity, so you just go out there. Sometimes it just hits you if you aren’t paying attention or really trying that much. If you get positioned right, it’s just going to hit you.”
This was never more evident than the weekend against Mercyhurst, with a turnover leading to what appeared to be a breakaway opportunity for a Lakers forward, Murphy sprang into action. Her mind processing at speeds that would make Tony Stark jealous, she discovered the angle and got in front of the shot just as it was being fired. Without dropping to a knee to make the block, her extended stick blew up the opportunity as it happened. Without notice to the event, the game simply moved forward.
The unheralded play of a defender doesn’t go unnoticed with a coach, however. Murphy’s ability to make these routinely spectacular plays drew the praise of her coach, and bodes well for her future. It exemplifies what she’d learned earlier in her life, without even realizing it. Making the right decisions, at the right times, is a trait many in college fail to learn. She’s known it both on and off the ice for years.
“She makes great gametime reads,” said Colontino. “She’s got a very good instinct for when to jump, when not to. When to make a pass, when somebody’s open. She just sees the ice very well. That’s one of those things that becomes extremely exciting with her. In a short period of time, she’s progressed into the position extremely well. And in a long term sense, we can’t wait to see how she progresses when she’s had more time to get familiar with the position at this level.
At the age of thirteen, Murphy made a difficult decision. She’d be moving away from home for five months each year until her high school graduation. While many are unprepared for this even at eighteen, she felt ready just as her sister was before her. She decided to go to Stowe, Vermont for the North America Hockey Academy.
“It was that time, I knew that hockey was what I wanted to do,” said Murphy. “I knew that I wanted to play it in college. And I knew that going to either Vermont or another kind of school would be the only way I’d really get there. Because in North Carolina, we had like one girls hockey team and there’s really not a lot of opportunity there. So if I wanted to get seen and play on a team that would be seen by scouts, I had to move out.”
For most, when encountering such a drastic change, it would be a shock to the system. There are stories of people staying close to home after parental pushback or a natural fear of leaving, and yet in this case it was just another day in the life. Playing it off, Murphy describes the decision as something she just came to naturally. Leaving behind the nice warm weather of North Carolina, she made a quick transition to Vermont’s steadily declining temperature and climate in part thanks to parental support and an older sister looking out for her.
“[My parents] were pretty comfortable with it,” said Murphy. “Having my sister there, they knew what it was like, and they knew that she would be there my freshman year too. So I wouldn’t be completely by myself. But they wanted the best opportunities for me, so they were completely supportive.”
Before she could even make that move, though, Murphy had to decide on how to manage her schooling. Moving away for five months out of the year isn’t conducive to a typical learning environment which a school district supports. While most students have the option of dis-enrolling from their local high schools then re-enrolling after competing with NAHA, the option was removed early by her school district in North Carolina.
Instead, she went on a search and found an online school based out of Texas which coincided with NCAA guidelines. A perfect match, at least it seems. There was still the issue of being on her own in a state over 800 miles away from home at the age of thirteen. With online schooling, she didn’t need to go to classes. She was able to stay in her room, shirk responsibility if she wanted like any average kid would when presented such an opportunity.
She chose to do the opposite, though. With a forward-thinking focus, she would will her way through classes with the ultimate hope of succeeding in college. The biology major looks back and sees it as the natural evolution, a way she continued to grow from when she was six and would create an itinerary for road trips. It was a forceful push into adulthood, the challenges of true responsibility. At thirteen, she responded well and still is.
“I always like to be organized and like neat and clean,” said Murphy. “I have to know where everything is. Like my room, I always have it tidy and clean. I have a board, I have like notes, I have like three different calendars for stuff – I have one on my computer, my phone, I have a whiteboard. So I’m always organized, it’s almost to the point where it’s weird. I’ve just always been that way. But like, growing up and going to NAHA so early definitely made it even more, so like, independent. It caused me to grow up, become more mature and responsible. It definitely prepared me for college. Like, I’ve had no problem transitioning into scheduling, time management. I’ve already done that, when I was 13, 14 years old.”
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by her coaches, either. Always on time with practice, on top of everything with the game and focused on the next challenge. Colontino has described her as having a quiet focus at times, driven to do better her next time out.
“She’s a straight-A student, she manages her time extremely well,” said Colontino. “She’s a very independent individual. She takes care of all her schoolwork at a high level. She comes ready for practice each day. She’s not someone that our coaching staff has to be on every single day. She’s very self-motivated. So I would think, in this case, obviously I think moving away at an early age has given her certain qualities that help make her successful at this level and help her make the transition to university. Because she just does a great job of taking care of her studies, being ready for practice, her work ethic is outstanding. And she makes good decisions away from the rink in terms of her social life, she knows when’s a good time to go out, and when’s not. When to catch a movie, when not to. So, I can only assume that some of those decisions have been honed or are honed by leaving home at an early age and having to make those decisions on her own.”
Even in the offseason, when competing only with herself and her sister, she carries this work ethic with her. She strives for something better. Almost never satisfied, Katherine continues working because it’s what she knows to do. It’s what she likes to do
Eleven o’clock in the morning on a weekday in April, Lifetime Gym in Cary, North Carolina is alive with a training staff aiding members. The weights clink as their lifted off the iron holsters, grunting comes from a few people, but it’s not as profound. Katherine Murphy and her sister Colleen arrive for their summer workouts. Six days a week, Monday through Saturday, they come back to what amounts to work for a college athlete.
They train hard with an hour of weightlifting doing things like squats and bench press. They go out on the track for sprints, speed and agility on the ladder. They continue to be unnoticed while extraordinary.
The trainers take notice. They offer advice, from the simplest of helping on lifts to even offering up a change of pace at the smoothie bar. One recommended a Peanut Butter and Jelly smoothie to Katherine, and she hasn’t looked back since.
“That’s actually my favorite kind of smoothie, is peanut butter and jelly smoothie,” said Murphy. “We have them at our gym. And it’s like, blueberries and peanut butter mix. It tastes like peanut butter and jelly, but it’s actually pretty good. It sounds weird.”
Near three o’clock, they head outside to join a trainer, a lacrosse coach, running conditioning drills outside. Two hours, they continue the extensive exercises. That is, until the snow cone guy comes around in his truck around four, when they get a short break to grab a free cone in the middle of the hottest part of the day. In the 90-degree heat of North Carolina, under the beating sun, they finish their snow cones and get back to work.
“Her and her sister both trained extraordinarily hard over the summer and came back better than ever,” said Jesse Driscoll, recruiting director at NAHA.
It became a constant competition. While wanting the other to succeed by any means necessary, the sisters grew to have a friendly competition. A battle that continues at all times of the year, whether it’s in season like the weekend matchup between Northeastern, where Colleen plays, and Robert Morris – which Katherine is sure to note Robert Morris won — or during the offseason on the track and in the gym.
“I think Katherine and I learn from each other in indirect ways,” said Colleen. “I’ve always tried to lead by example and work as hard as I can which has gotten me to where I am now. I know that Katherine works just as hard as and even harder than me sometimes and that’s all I can ask for. I’m always learning new things from her whether it’s on the ice or off ice workouts.”
Sitting outside the Academic office, Murphy demands attention inadvertently. Not in a common way, she won’t deliberately draw people’s eye. She does nothing but sit in her seat, glancing around the room to the familiar and unfamiliar. She reacts to people, expressing herself with uncommon grace which she exhibits on the ice as well. A skill she, like many, knows well, but like few, performs without pause.
It was that grace which aided her transition to defense. It’s that grace which will help her moving forward. A maturity that so few can truly claim, she is able to do so. From her six year old self setting a model of planning while getting car sick to herself now as the epitome of a hockey player – kind, intelligent, courteous and mature. She is another important piece of the Colonials in their playoff stretch, but if you hear her, or her coach, tell it, she’s just another one of the girls.
“Now our team as a team is playing the best hockey we’ve played all year,” said Colontino. “And that becomes the most important thing, for the weekend, is how are we doing as a team versus how is Katherine Murphy doing as an individual. Because, at this level, and at this point in the season, it takes the whole team. You can’t have two players take a day off, three players take a night off. You really need everybody going all the time, because it’s just, that’s how close the margin is. You’re standing on top of a razor blade. Literally, it’s a sharp, fine line where one decision this way or one decision that way can really affect the outcome of the game or your season. That’s where we are right now. We want people making the right decisions, focused and ready every day. Putting their time in, so when it comes time for that big moment. Whether it’s our first playoff game, or a championship or a semifinal game. There’s no turning on or off the switch, you either got it or you don’t. Because, that’s what you’re used to. And we want to be the team that has it, because that’s what we’re used to. That’s what our habits are. Every day, we come in sharp, crisp, focused and ready. So playing for a championship is just another day for us.”
Murphy, as she is wont to do, is gracious even when it is unnecessary. She gets up to leave, thanking me along the way. She pauses only to be courteous to those around her, watching as people flow through. She blends with the crowd as she walks away. An extraordinary person among ordinary people, she stands out.
She always does.
Note: In-text photos courtesy of Kyle Gorcey