She doesn’t care if you’ve never heard of roller hockey. It’s all Oswego State senior Shilo Schmelcher has ever known.
Schmelcher started skating at only 11 months old in her father’s rink in Utica, N.Y. Twenty years later, she led the Ladies USA National Team to its first-ever fourth place finish in the 2008 World Championships in Yuri-Honjo, Japan.
It’s been a Schmelcher family tradition since the 1980s. Shilo’s father, Bill, is the coach of the nationally-renowned Utica Thunderbirds club roller hockey team, the premier club hockey team on the east coast. Shilo’s younger brother, Shawn, is the youngest player ever to make the national team at age 15. In the 2009 Junior World Championships in Italy, his slap-shot broke a player’s foot and even knocked a goalie unconscious. In fact, Shawn was the reason that Shilo got into roller hockey in the first place
"I didn’t really get into it until I was six," Schmelcher said. "Because my younger brother, who was three, was getting into it and I didn’t want him to be better than me."
And it’s certainly a challenge to find anyone with a more impressive resume than Schmelcher. She has three Most Valuable Player awards in her collection from national tournaments and even a best goalie award in the one time she filled in for a goalie who broke her arm in a car accident on the way to nationals that year.
"It was really last-minute, but I said I’d give it a shot," Schmelcher said. "When they announced who won best goalie, I had gum in my mouth and I was so shocked it just fell out. As far as we know, I’m the only player to win both awards at nationals."
That determination to bring her team to success has not only characterized Schmelcher as a player, but as a student as well. She has a rigorous routine dealing with academics and training at the same time. Because of the upcoming national tournament that doubles as a showcase for the 2010 World Championship team, she must go home every weekend to scrap for any training time she possibly can.
"Saturday and Sunday, [the rink] is open all day," Schmelcher said. "So when I have a two-hour break, I’m out on the floor practicing. The next day I work three hours, then practice for another three or four hours."
Her father said the routine hasn’t been easy.
"She comes home Friday after classes, then leaves to go back to school at 6:30 a.m. on Monday mornings," Schmelcher said. "Next semester she has to take 20 credits as well. Sure, it has an effect on her grades, and it’s hard for people to relate because the sport is so unheard of."
This has become the defining characteristic that coaches, and anyone who comes in contact with Shilo Schmelcher, that people have come to know her for: the determination, the relentlessness, the ability to step up in any situation, academic or roller-hockey related, and succeed.
Pat Ferguson, who coaches a competing roller hockey club team in Cumberland, M.D., has seen the dedication Schmelcher has to perfecting her game. When Utica doesn’t have enough players to field a team, Ferguson keeps a spot on the roster for Schmelcher to play in national tournaments with them.
"You can see the determination in her fundamentals and her character," Ferguson said. "In the 2008 World Championships, she was the floor leader without most of the veterans on the floor."
The 2007 National Championships answered any doubts of how committed Schmelcher was to winning.
"I had four games to play that day, and I woke up throwing up before our first game at seven in the morning," Schmelcher said. "We had no subs, so I was going back and forth between the floor and the sub bench throwing up into a bucket. The next game, I’m bringing a bucket out onto the floor again."
She has been a crucial part of a venerable Utica Thunderbirds heritage that has won 76 percent of the national tournaments they have been in since 1996. The club also has 46 Team USA selections that includes the years that she has been selected.
Bill Schmelcher said her defining moment as a player and a person came when she was only 13 years old. She was playing in the senior division of a co-ed league with her father at the time. The team had made it to the medal round, tied for third place.
The game had come down to sudden death, an inch away from the bronze medal. Knowing they had only one shot left, Bill Schmelcher had come up with a plan. But it required Shilo to break out of her comfort zone and expand on her skills as a player. Up to that point, she had been a conservative player, defensive-minded, with an eye for setting up her brother Shawn for a goal. With Shawn not playing in the tournament, the blueprint required her to step up and become a complete player. All she needed was the determination to put it into action.
"I told her, ‘look, you’re not playing with Shawn, you’re not passing to Shawn, everyone needs to be able to play that same role,’" Schmelcher said. "Everyone agreed they were going to key on me and then [teammate Heather] next. We said, ‘either one of us will have the ball and draw the defense toward us, but you’re going to take the shot.’"
With the game on the line, the bronze medal looming over the team’s heads, Shilo did just that. The defense doubled toward Bill’s side, leaving Shilo wide open on the right side of the floor. Heather passed the ball across the floor to Shilo, who cut to her left and shot the ball into the back of the net to secure the third-place victory for the team. After that day, Bill said, Shilo grew as both a player and a person.
"Her dedication and determination wasn’t going to let the team down," Schmelcher said. "It’s part of her personality."
So it’s no wonder that since that day, Schmelcher has turned into one of the top ladies roller hockey players in the world. She may not have her brother’s famed slap-shot, but her dedication to each individual aspect of the game has helped craft her into the best fundamental player in the game today.
Although you may have never heard of roller hockey and Shilo Schmelcher, others are taking notice. They see what she’s done at such a young age, how she’s handled school and playing at the elite level of a sport relatively unheard of in the U.S.
However, she has to leave the country to get this recognition. After stepping off the plane in Chile for the Cup of Americas in 2007, she received an un-expected greeting.
"In Chile, roller hockey is huge," Schmelcher said. "I never imagined, but I felt like a star there. They knew who I was, and they knew me by name."
She’s the type of athlete that doesn’t receive national attention for continually balancing a grueling academic and athletic program. Roller sports are pretty low on the list of spectator sports in this country, which means Schmelcher’s feats are unheralded.
But she wouldn’t have it any other way. Until that day when roller hockey re-appears in the Olympics and in American homes, she will continue to work on her fundamentals and finishing up her degree in broadcasting. It’s all she’s ever known how to do.