NCAA women's hockey: Saint Benedict's Kaitlyn Miller perfects balancing act
ST. JOSEPH, Minn. -- Two hits in high school knocked Kaitlyn Miller down.
Now a college hockey player at Saint Benedict, she's out to prove she'll always get back up.
The first hit came during her junior year of high school. Miller was skating the puck up the middle of the ice. Just as she passed the puck, a defending player hit her straight on, and knocked her backwards onto the ice.
"I just remember getting hit. It was slow motion, like a movie," Miller said. "My head bounced off the ice. It's on film, but I've never seen it. I don't want to. I played the rest of the game, and I scored a goal, but I have no recollection of it."
Miller finished the game, but was taken to the hospital after she kept falling asleep on the bus ride home. She had a major concussion and suffered seizures and headaches – and still does on her left side – on top of neck and back problems.
Miller played in the last game of her junior year, but played scared, she said.
The second hit came in her senior year. This time after she was hit, she couldn't feel her legs.
"I got hit, went down and I couldn't get up. They pulled me off the ice because we didn't know what was going on," she said. "I started freaking out because I couldn't feel my legs."
The temporary paralysis wore off in less than 24 hours and Miller returned to the ice once again. She wasn't quite the same player right away. But she wasn't ready to quit on her passion.
"I just wasn't ready to give it up yet," said Miller, who started playing hockey in fifth grade. "Honestly I never really thought about why I kept stepping on the ice over and over again. It just never occurred to me that maybe I shouldn't. I really wanted to play and nothing else mattered."
With her diminished play, college hockey coaches weren't actively recruiting Miller during her senior year, and any dreams she may have had of a Division I scholarship had fallen away.
CHOOSING SAINT BENEDICT
Jen Kranz, the head hockey coach at Saint Benedict, was one coach who did come looking. She only watched Miller play once, but as soon as Kranz saw the 5-foot-7 forward in action in one of the final games of her high school career, she knew Miller needed to be a part of the CSB hockey program.
"Going to see Miller play was amazing," Kranz said of the Esko, Minnesota, native. "It was fast and furious then because we needed this kid. We always joke about 218ers – athletes from the 218 area code in Minnesota. And I knew she was going to come with great work ethic and attitude, because she embodies that spirit of the 218er."
Miller waited as long as she could to make a decision, but ultimately chose to come to school to major in nursing and play NCAA Division III hockey at CSB. It's a decision she doesn't regret.
"Everyone [on my campus visit] was talking about team chemistry and getting along, and it was fun to see," she said. "I got to skate with [the team] and realized I could do it. I liked the campus; there's a lot to offer and everyone is really kind. CSB also has a really good nursing program, and that drew me in.
"Coming to CSB is probably the best decision I've ever made; I can't see myself anywhere else."
Miller passed the physical exams required by the NCAA, MIAC and CSB and came to Saint Ben's with the required paperwork (including a health form signed by her physician). She took the baseline concussion test that is also required by both the NCAA and CSB and has been a part of the team ever since.
As well as playing hockey, Miller is also a part of the CSB nursing program. During her first year she quickly learned to balance hockey and the rigorous academic schedule that comes with being a nursing major. She starts clinic rotations this semester.
"The nursing program is brutal your first year," she said. "It's busy, but I tell people it's definitely doable. The faculty know it's hard, but the teachers and faculty are people you can turn to for help, even if you don't know them.
As if balancing being a nursing major and playing varsity hockey at the college level wasn't enough, Miller also paid for her first three semesters of college on her own.
"Our parents have been telling (my sister and I) for a long time that we'd be [paying for college] on our own," she said. "So I knew it was coming. That was the reason I took so long to decide [where to go to college]."
Miller took out a few loans, and her dad took out a loan – one she knows she has to repay. That paid for her first two semesters at CSB.
Her third semester was paid off by working 80-plus hours per week at the Duluth Paper Mill this past summer. She worked as much as she could in the mill, and spent her "off" days coming into the office to help out.
"It's a unique experience to pay for an education," Miller said. "I don't miss class. I'm paying for that class, so I'm not missing it. It's my hard-earned money. It's rewarding being able to say I did this on my own. It makes you humble.
"It's hard, though. I feel bad for my parents that they can't give me that. I know they'd like to. But they're supportive in a lot of other ways."
The hard work paid off, as Miller was able to write a check for her first semester of the 2015-16 school year. But another decision she made this past summer has allowed her to get that entire check back.
When she looked at colleges, Miller had looked at the ROTC program at Saint Ben's, but didn't think it would be an option while also balancing hockey and a nursing major.
When she got to Saint Ben's, however, she saw friends making similar balancing acts work. So this past summer she applied for the program. She passed the tests – both the academic and the physical fitness – and was awarded a full-tuition scholarship. That scholarship will pay for her final three years of college.
"Money just got harder; I think that was the biggest ([factor in joining ROTC]," Miller said. "It was a bigger stressor than school. I couldn't pull out more loans. I thought I was going to have to transfer until I got my scholarship at the end of September."
Kranz said Miller's decision to join ROTC is just part of who she is and shows her incredible will to do whatever it takes to do what she loves.
"She just has this attitude that says nothing is going to stop her from fulfilling her dreams and doing what she wants," Kranz said. "She could spend 80 hours a week in the paper mill every summer, or she could give herself to her country and get school paid for and have an incredible experience.
"What an incredible testament to Saint Ben's. It's a bummer that money has become that much of an issue. But wow, that says something about the experience that she's willing to sacrifice so much to be here."
"While so many student-athletes juggle a large number of responsibilities each week, Miller is over the top in how she manages the demands in her life," CSB Athletic Director Glen Werner added. "She not only does all of this with grace, but under more pressure than many of her peers."
Now, on top of hockey workouts, practices and games and nursing classes, practicals and studying, Miller also has ROTC classes, workouts and monthly drills. Monday and Wednesday mornings are Army workouts (Miller goes to the ROTC workout Monday and lifts with the hockey team Wednesday). Thursday night is a two-and-a-half hour ROTC lab. And every Monday and Wednesday at 8 a.m. she has her military science class. Plus, Miller is also taking the first-year military science class as an independent study, since she wasn't part of the program last year.
"Cadet Miller has definitely chosen an incredibly challenging path," said Lt. Col. Darrell Bascom. "Her ability to accomplish this, while rare in the standard population, is not surprising because her comfort level is to push herself to the limits of her ability whether it's on the rink, in the classroom or in the field on an exercise. It's why we selected her, and I think it is an indicator of the quality of students overall at CSB and SJU.
"The opportunities opened up for Cadet Miller by participating in and completing Army ROTC are limitless. Not only have you completed a leadership program widely considered to be one of the best in the nation, but you have been selected to lead soldiers in the greatest military fighting force in history."
While balancing varsity hockey, a nursing major and ROTC training is tough, Miller said that having been a student-athlete her whole life and balancing two of the three during her first year has helped her transition so far this year.
Having school paid for – no more 80-hour work weeks during summer vacations – and her future laid out for her is an added bonus.
"[The scholarship] has been a huge stress reliever," she said. "I have a free ride. It has not come without work, and I pay for it every day in different ways. I can't complain, though. Life has been good to me.
"ROTC is strengthening my leadership skills by giving me necessary tools to be put in situations of power and to succeed in these positions," Miller said. "The military is making me not only physically tough, but also mentally."
Signing on to ROTC means an eight-year commitment for Miller, who wants to be assigned to active duty and work in one of the eight major hospitals on bases around the world. Honolulu, Germany or Alaska are her first choices. As of right now, she plans to stay in the military for the full 20 years, retire at 45 and work part-time.
Twenty years might seem like a lot to some people, but after the obstacles she's already overcome, Miller knows she's up for it. She's building an uncommon level of confidence.
"Because of the growth I'm going through in handling these three parts of my life [nursing, hockey and ROTC], I know that I can accomplish anything," she says. "I can tell you that I will probably fail a million and one times after college. But every time I will get back up and try again.
"All the struggles that I have been through to get where I am today were completely worth it. As much as I wish I didn't get hit, and as much as I wish money wasn't an issue, I honestly wouldn't change it. The mentality and drive I have right now is worth the pain, fatigue and tears it took to get me here."