By Eric Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — At first glance, Lauren Pray does not look like your prototypical hockey goalie.
At all of 5-foot-3 on skates, the 15-year-old Kenmore West sophomore just about clears the crossbar on a regulation cage.
But don’t be fooled by her slight stature and disarming smile. The backstop for the combined Kenmore girls high school hockey team is no longer the best-kept secret in the area.
“She’s No. 1 in every statistical category in Western New York,” Kenmore girls hockey coach Jeff Orlowski said. “She’s been the backbone of this team — she’s been just phenomenal.”
Pray first started playing the game at age 6, after watching her father and her uncle coach and play in the Tonawanda Lightning organization.
At the time, there were no leagues strictly for girls — so she played with the boys.
“I wanted to try it for myself,” Pray said. “In my second year, nobody else wanted to play goal, so I did it. And a couple of games into it, I really started to like it. Then one of the boys travel teams asked me to play net for them full-time.”
She continued to play with the boys until last year, when she quickly cracked the Kenmore high school girls lineup as a freshman.
She went on to lead Kenmore to a sectional title, pitching a 43-save shutout in a 1-0 win over West Seneca in the championship game.
“We didn’t win games because we had a great team,” Orlowski said. “We won because of her.”
For good measure, she also helped the 19-under Buffalo Bison girls travel team to a state championship last year at the ripe old age of 14.
Pray is modest about her success, although she admits that she spends a lot of time working on her craft — at camps, clinics and simply playing year-round. She says her most vital work comes before she ever hits the ice.
“The mental aspect of the game is the most important part of preparation, and I want to get better at that,” she said. “I just keep picturing myself making save after save, and that calms me right down and gets me focused.”
Orlowski, who has been with the team since the league’s inception three years ago, has coached both boys and girls — and he calls Pray one of the most talented players he’s ever coached.
“Her lateral movement is amazing,” Orlowski said. “She’s a butterfly goalie, and she slides well – she’s very difficult to beat on a back-door play. She always seems to be in position, and her angles are second to none. And she also has a great glove hand.”
Pray owns a sparking goals-against average of 1.20, with a pair of shutouts and a save percentage of .951 as Kenmore eyes another crown.
She shares time in goal with senior Kaitlyn Simmons, whom Orlowski calls a terrific player in her own right — she’s going to play club hockey next year at the University at Buffalo.
“She just has the misfortune of being stuck behind the best goalie in Western New York,” Orlowski said.
Pray is already drawing attention from the college ranks herself, although coaches are not allowed to start recruiting until after sophomore year.
Orlowski says they’re already starting to make video tapes of highlights, adding: “She definitely has the talent to play Division I hockey.”