WCHA Press Releases



Multi-Sport Experience Adds To Hockey For Stilwell, Vekich
Multi-Sport Athletes Avery Stilwell and Claire Vekich Add Depth of Talent to WCHA Rosters

By Bill Brophy

In a world of specialization for many youth sports and parents often being told about year-round camps for their young athletes, meet multi-sport stars Claire Vekich and Avery Stilwell.

Vekich is the Rookie of the Week in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association this week after scoring a goal one night and an assist the next day in Bemidji State's two-game sweep over Lindenwood on Thanksgiving weekend.

You might recognize the name if you followed high school sports in Minnesota during 2020-21. Vekich was one of the five finalists for Ms. Hockey, presented to the best senior high school player in Minnesota. Claire was also one of the five finalists for Ms. Volleyball, presented to the best senior volleyball player in the state.

Vekich was a five-time letterwinner for Grand Rapids-Greenway, a six-time letterwinner in both volleyball and softball and when COVID-19 prematurely ended the prep volleyball season, Vekich picked up a tennis racquet and ended up playing No. 2 singles.

"Claire is a rare, once-in-a generation athlete," said her high school coach Brad Hyduke.

"We have had a lot of good athletes here like Gabbie Smith, a lot of players are multi-sport athletes," said Bemidji State head coach Jim Scanlan of his freshman from Coleraine, Minn., who also was a standout softball player. "But Claire probably is the best player we have had at two sports. She could have gone and played college volleyball."

And then there is Stilwell.

She was a three-sport star in softball, tennis, and hockey at Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato High School, but decided to give up her career as a hockey goaltender last March and concentrate on making the tennis team at Minnesota State, a school that competes in Division II in tennis, but is a WCHA team and facing the best in Division I hockey.

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Stilwell, a four-time All-Conference player from Litchfield, was the No. 2 tennis player at Minnesota State in the fall and planning to be a fan for the Maverick hockey team when head coach John Harrington saw his three goaltenders sidelined by injuries in early November.

While figuring out what Plan D was for the Mavs, Harrington's assistant coaches Jeff Giesen and Shari Dickerman heard about Stilwell from a coach who had seen her play during summer hockey. Turns out Avery was living in the same dorm as a group of Maverick players who also heard she tended goal in high school. Harrington contacted her, arranged two 30-minute tryouts and Stilwell was on the team. And then she started in goal for two straight games (Nov. 19-20) -- against Ohio State no less, the No. 2 team in the country.

Since Calla Frank, the Mavericks' starting goalie, was still ruled to be in concussion protocol, Harrington turned to his tennis-player-turned-netminder. Suiting up in the backup goalie pads of Minnesota State men's team's All-America goalie Dryden McKay, Stilwell acquitted herself well against the high-scoring Buckeyes in Columbus. Stilwell made 48 saves in the series opener, a 6-3 Ohio State victory, and had 39 saves in a 9-0 loss.

"She gave us a chance to win the first night," said Giesen. "And then she had a little muscle fatigue the next day. You could see she is a good athlete and she showed a lot to play in games like that."

Frank is expected back for the Mavericks' series against St. Thomas on Dec. 3-4, but Stilwell has agreed to stay on as a possible pinch-hit goalie until the Christmas break, at that time when Minnesota State had already planned to bring in a goaltender from the transfer portal. And then she will have some stories to tell when she resumes her tennis career at Minnesota State.

Some of Avery's unique tale is written here in Tom Elliott's piece in the West Central Tribune: https://www.wctrib.com/sports/hockey/7296075-College-hockey-Ex-Litchfield-star-is-back-on-the-ice-at-least-temporarily

Vekich has no plans to quit playing. In fact, she has a bright future in the WCHA. Scanlan views her as a top-6 forward with the Beavers as she finished November with five points by two goals and three assists, scored in three of the last six games, and has a three-game point streak for Bemidji State, which dresses nine freshmen.

Every week she seems to get better and experience something new. She scored her first goal at home with her parents and high school coach in the stands in late October. In early November, Bemidji State held top-ranked and two-time defending National Champion Wisconsin to a regulation scoreless tie in Madison in front of a sellout crowd.

"It was crazy. I have never played in front of so many people," said Vekich. "Super fun."

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Vekich says the pace of the game has taken an adjustment. "Things happen faster here," she says. "You don't have as much time with the puck."

Her athleticism helps and to say it runs in the family is an understatement. Her dad Mike played baseball at Minnesota Duluth. Her uncle Derek skated on a line with Kris Miller, a former Mr. Hockey who played at UMD. And then there is the other side of the family: Claire's mom, Julie played in the state volleyball tournament in Minnesota and her great aunt, Annie Adamczak Glavan, has been called by some the best female athlete ever in northern Minnesota. Before going to Nebraska to play volleyball and basketball, Annie Adamczak's Moose Lake High School teams never lost a game her senior year – going 24-0 in volleyball, 26-0 in basketball and 24-0 in softball. Annie was inducted into the Minnesota Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020.

Claire is very familiar with Annie's exploits and she says her family's history has encouraged her to play many sports.

"Part of it was going to a smaller school where you go from one sport to another," said Vekich who just recently decided not to play softball at Bemidji State this spring. "But it is great to play different sports. You get to meet different teammates, get to learn from different coaches. You just get so many great experiences."