From ‘Last Frontier’ to ice of Troy
Alaska trio's journey continues 4,000 miles from home
The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute women’s ice hockey team boasts one statistic that no other Division I team in the country can: three Alaskan players on its current roster.
Amanda Castignetti, Jordan Smelker and Nona Letuligasenoa all hail from the great state of Alaska, more than 4,000 miles from RPI’s home in Troy, N.Y. Though each of these young women followed a different path to get to Rensselaer, the three share a common bond in their dedication to and passion for the RPI women’s hockey program.
Only in the past couple decades has women’s hockey begun to gain prominence and recognition throughout the United States. That, coupled with the relatively small population of the state of Alaska, makes it pretty tough for Alaska’s female hockey players to go far in their hockey careers. As a result, all three players chose to migrate to the East Coast in order to pursue their passion.
“Hockey is great out here for women, and schooling was also a big part of [my decision to attend Rensselaer],” said Castignetti, whose hometown is Anchorage. “I wanted to make sure I had a good education on the other side and RPI offered both great hockey and academics.”
Castignetti has demonstrated her commitment in the classroom as a multiple ECAC Hockey All-Academic and Dean’s List selection, while also setting an example for her teammates on the ice. A quiet leader and consistent play-maker, the assistant captain is known for her upbeat attitude and spirit. And though she stands at just 5-foot-4, the junior defenseman is a forceful, offensive-minded player with an enormous presence.
Amanda’s early experience playing hockey has perhaps shaped her into the mentally tough player she is today; Alaskan girls’ teams at the time were either scarce or uncompetitive, she grew up playing with the boys.
“I started playing hockey up in Anchorage but I didn’t play against girls growing up. I had more fun playing with the boys,” she laughed. “We had to travel to play competitive hockey so we’d make trips to Vancouver and Victoria just so we could play hockey.”
Upon entering high school, Amanda chose to leave Alaska to pursue other opportunities to further her hockey career.
“I ended up being scouted my eighth grade year to go to Shattuck-St. Mary’s [in Faribault, Minn.] to play for their girls team,” she said. “That was the first time I’d ever played girls hockey.”
Amanda spent four years at Shattuck, where she and her teammates enjoyed enormous success, winning three national championships. About life in Minnesota, she says, “I loved it. It was different because I didn’t have a normal high school life. I was in dorms for four years, away from my parents for four years. It was hard being away from them, but it was good for me and I enjoyed it.”
Shattuck also was Amanda’s first connection to RPI. Former teammate Allysen Weidner, who was a senior there during Amanda’s sophomore season, went on to Rensselaer and Amanda followed two years later after an East Coast college visit with her father helped convince her that RPI was the right fit for her.
“[My dad and I] visited three or four different schools – RPI was one of them, and Union [RPI’s crosstown rival] was actually another one,” she explained of her first time to the Rensselaer campus. “I liked the team right away; it looked like fun. I liked the school and wanted a challenge.”
The opportunity to play for a great hockey program, while getting an education – along with familiarity of having Weidner as a teammate – made Amanda’s decision pretty easy.
An environmental engineering major at RPI, Castignetti clearly demonstrates not just a love of hockey but a drive to succeed academically and professionally after college.
Asked whether she would like to return to Alaska to work as an engineer, Castignetti’s love for her home state became clear: “Being an environmental engineer there would be ideal for me. There are places that my mom used to visit in Alaska that don’t have running water, or sewers. But it’s my home, and I want to help make it better, help people to improve their way of living. Growing up outside and being out there made me more aware of that.”
Jordan Smelker, a timid freshman also from Anchorage, seems to already be following in Amanda’s footsteps. An undeclared engineering major who played for Team Alaska during high school, Jordan is leaning toward environmental engineering, as well. She hopes to use her skills to improve the quality of her home state.
“I’d really like to go back to Alaska,” she said. “There’s an internship I want where I could go to native villages and help with water sanitation.”
For now, though, Smelker’s main focus is frozen water. She already has a commanding presence on the ice for the RPI Engineers, exuding a confidence and drive that negate her off-ice shyness. A quick, nose-to-the-net forward, Smelker’s risk-taking makes her exciting to watch in each game she plays. And as she nears the end of her rookie season, Jordan is second on the team in goals and points.
Unlike Amanda, Jordan chose to remain in Alaska throughout high school, playing hockey on both her high school team and with Team Alaska. “I was really close to my family, and my grandma just passed away this June, so I felt like being with her was the best thing to do,” she explained. “There were resources [in Alaska] to help me get better as a player so I decided it was the best thing for me to stay.”
Despite remaining in the Last Frontier, Jordan had great success with her hometown high school team, where she won two national championships, as well as playing for Team Alaska. She brushes off the difficulty of balancing two competitive teams at once, saying, “It really wasn’t that hard. We traveled a lot but it was just fun.”
But it was Smelker’s journey to the East Coast that is perhaps her most courageous endeavor. Having remained in Alaska throughout her life to stay close to her family, it was a life-changing decision to suddenly move across the country for four years. But having been recruited heavily by RPI’s coaches throughout her career, she decided to give it a shot.
“I visited here last June with my family and I really liked this school. I liked the feel, and how small it was,” she said. “I also wanted to be an engineer, so that was part of it, but [I made the decision] mainly for the hockey.”
And how is Jordan holding up, having recently completed her first semester of college in a new environment?
“It’s been a really smooth transition,” she said with relief. “The school is challenging and the hockey is really fun. … If I wasn’t so busy I’d feel more homesick, but it’s good that I have other things to take my mind off it.”
One thing that helps with the feeling of homesickness is having teammate and fellow Alaskan Nona Letuligasenoa as a roommate.
Where Jordan’s personality is timid and shy (until she laces up her skates, that is) Letuligasenoa (who prefers just “Nona,” as her first name is even longer than her last) is an outgoing, bubbly freshman from Fairbanks. A graduate of the North American Hockey Academy (NAHA), Nona is majoring in communications, but another main focus now, as it has been for as long as she can remember, is hockey.
“I started playing when I was about 2, but it was only because my brother played and he was a big hotshot hometown guy so I wanted to do it, too,” she joked. “My sister was actually into ballet, so my mom put me into both and when we had conflicting schedules, she made me choose if I wanted to be a ballerina or a hockey player. I chose hockey because it didn’t hurt my feet.”
Nona played mostly on girls teams until she began playing for a boys Bantam A team in eighth grade. Her freshman year of high school, she played not only on her high school boys varsity squad, but simultaneously for a girls traveling team in Anchorage, nearly 400 miles from her hometown.
“I would fly back and forth on the weekends between Anchorage and Fairbanks. I would have practice with my team down there and then come back and practice with my high school team. Some days when we had big tournaments coming up, I would leave school at 2:15, hop on the 3 p.m. flight to Anchorage, have 5 p.m. practice, and be on the 8 p.m. flight home.”
Now that’s dedication. When asked how she was able to balance playing on two teams at once, she said, “I was a freshman and had tons of energy and was totally all for it. It was a lot, now that I think about it.”
Nona left Alaska during her sophomore year, moving across the country to Stowe, Vt. to play for NAHA. Like Amanda, Nona also valued her prep school experience and thought it set her up well for the lifestyle that college hockey entails. Describing life at NAHA, she explained, “There are only two teams and 40 girls and we lived in an old renovated ski lodge. We had school and practice and lifting, and then you just hung out with the girls all night.”
Unlike Jordan and Amanda, Nona took a little more convincing before she knew that Rensselaer was right for her.
“I had never heard of RPI. We [NAHA] ended up coming here for a league weekend and used the Field House. It was before all the new glass and stuff was in here and I thought it looked kinda old.”
Nona ended up going on a tour of RPI’s facilities and her opinion changed drastically upon seeing the brand new locker rooms and $92 million newly constructed facilities of Rensselaer’s East Campus Athletic Village. Still, she wasn’t convinced, and continued to look at other schools.
“I ended up coming back here for an official visit and meeting the team and coming to the games, and I fell in love so fast,” she recalled. “In March I called Coach Burke and committed, and now I’m an Engineer.”
Though Nona has adjusted well to life in Troy, her transition on the ice has been a bit more challenging. A lifelong mainstay in the defensive zone, she was asked to play forward upon her arrival. It is a role that has her working continuously to be what RPI needs on the ice. A focused player with her head on a swivel, Nona has worked throughout the season to develop a level of confidence like Smelker’s in the offensive zone.
While this year’s squad (which features a young group of players adjusting to new roles) has struggled at times during the season, the Engineers have taken their ups and downs in stride and continue to fight for a spot in the ECAC Hockey playoffs. Rensselaer is currently 10-14-7, with an 8-10-2 league record that has it sitting tied for seventh place in a historically tough ECAC Hockey conference.
Said Castignetti: “We don’t have any superstars on our team, so we need everyone to contribute. We’ve been figuring out roles on the team and we’re continuously getting better. It’s been a learning process but we’re getting there.”
All three young women share some distinct qualities that will no doubt help them make their team stronger and more effective on the ice. They hail from the same home state, where they fought to succeed in an environment that often downplayed the passion and skill level of female hockey players. They are intelligent, motivated students who thrive on the academic challenges that Rensselaer has presented them. And each has had to demonstrate enormous talent and dedication to make it to the college hockey level.
It is likely that these rare qualities are what led them to choose such a promising women’s hockey program as Rensselaer. And with these three young Alaskan women on the ice, the Engineers will be viewed as a dangerous opponent and ECAC Hockey contender for years to come.