Cayla Barnes' second freshman year at Boston College is likely going to go very differently than her first.
She has started her red-shirt freshman season at Boston College after winning gold with Team USA at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Heading into last year, Barnes enrolled at BC after not being named to the initial USA centralization roster. She played in five games for the Eagles before she got a surprise phone call asking her to join Team USA in Tampa.
Barnes left school on October 28 and, less than two weeks later, tallied two goals and an assist with the national team as they took gold in the Four Nations Cup. Just more than four months later, Barnes was suiting up for the Olympics as the youngest player on the team, having just turned 19 in early January.
Boston College has played just three games in the young college hockey season, but Barnes has already shown what a difference that year made.
When she debuted for BC in those early games, it could be said she played a bit shy and timid. That's not unusual for freshmen as they transition to the college game, but it does seem almost impossible in retrospect. The change between last season and this season in Barnes' on-ice presence is like night and day.
That she might ever have been anything but the confident, assertive player that's showing on the ice now is hard to imagine. Of all the words used to define Team USA in Pyeongchang, the most important might be "fearless." With 13 first-time Olympians, the team managed to avoid getting bogged down in worries about what had happened four years before in Sochi.
"It was a complete new experience for me. I didn't have any prior fears or worries of not winning. I think our team had that really cool dynamic [and] had that healthy balance [with] first-time Olympians that had nothing to lose. We had no fear. We weren't really nervous. We were just ready to play and do what we needed to do to help the team. We also had the veterans that had been there before and gave tips and advice and knew what it felt like to lose. We both brought something to contribute to our success," said Barnes. "I think just because we hadn't felt that heartbreak, it just wasn't something that we were afraid of feeling."
Barnes had a whole summer of transition from prep school to college to think about how that first season would go. She was thrown onto an accelerated path the moment she got the phone call from USA Hockey inviting her to camp. She didn't consider saying no, and there wasn't any room for doubts or nerves. So while she had looked like she was still feeling her way around her teammates and college hockey, she had to throw all misgivings out and work to make up for lost time with Team USA.
She joined a US Olympic squad that had already been together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – for months. She was the youngest player and many had assumed that the centralization roster that had been named was the roster that would go to Pyeongchang. It would be a difficult situation for any player, but especially for an 18-year-old with little experience experience at that level.
But Barnes said if there was one thing she's learned to be in life so far, it's adaptable.
A California native, Barnes left home at 14 to attend the New Hampshire School where she was named a USA Today All-American three times. She won three-straight gold medals at the IIHF U-18 Women's World Championships from 2015-2017, meaning she competed for Team USA starting when she was 15 (she turned 16 during the 2015 tournament).
"I definitely think [adaptability] is one of my strengths," she said. "I was held accountable [in boarding school]. I learned a lot of skills in high school to be able to adjust and adapt and kind of just roll with the punches that life throws at you. That really helped me when this happened last year. It was a big adjustment for me, but you figure it out at the time."
Despite her boarding school experience, the move to Tampa brought a host of obstacles she had yet to have any familiarity with. Her older teammates helped to learn on the fly about things like paying for utilities and rent, cashing checks, and grocery shopping.
There was a steep learning curve both on and off the ice, but needing help navigating it all helped her bond with her new teammates and find common ground with players that not all that long ago she'd been idolizing herself.
Her new teammates' faith in her pushed Barnes to have faith in herself and her confidence on the ice grew.
"I think all areas of my game improved. You're playing with some of the best players in the world and you're practicing and playing with them every single day. I just think you're naturally going to push yourself to be better and I think that's what happened. That was really valuable," she said.
At just 5'1", Barnes makes for an interesting blue-liner, especially in comparison to Team USA and Boston College teammate Megan Keller, who ten inches taller at 5'11". Where Keller is sometimes a more physical defender, Barnes uses her smaller stature to work in close on opponents as well as to break free for offensive opportunities.
Keller said she pays attention to how Barnes moves on the ice and tries to emulate some of the speed and slipperiness that Barnes utilizes to enhance her own games.
"I definitely didn't get the tall genes in my family, but I never let that affect me. I don't even think of size as a factor," Barnes said. "I definitely think that you can use it to your advantage in some situations. Being quick and getting out of tight situations is something I do well with my size. I try to jump into play and use my feet and create offensive chances. I like to attack."
If nothing else, Barnes and Keller prove that there really is a role for everyone in the women's game. The two are both tough defenders unafraid to block shots. Both players like to step up and be a part of the offensive attack. There are as many things that are similar about their style of play as there are differences in how they use their stature to gain advantage over their opponents.
Barnes and Keller will be two big linchpins for a Boston College squad that last year had a potent offense. The team featured the first-ever rookie winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award in Daryl Watts, who led the nation in scoring. Two of the other top-ten scorers in the NCAA last season were also BC Eagles: Caitrin Lonergan and Makenna Newkirk. The 2017-18 squad had the best offense in the nation, notching 4.08 goals per game. What the Eagles lacked last season was a strong defense –which is understandable with Barnes, Keller, and Kali Flanagan all away playing on the blue line for Team USA. This year, they get all three back.
There's no way to know for certain, but it's likely Cayla Barnes would be a very different hockey player had she not gotten that call last October. It was a big hit for an already-ravaged BC defensive corps to lose Barnes, but what they've gained is an elite athlete whose accelerated 2017-18 season has prepared her to make a huge impact on the team for four years to come.
The goal is, of course, a National Championship, something no other Boston College team has been able to do. It's a long season and there are a lot of obstacles in their path, but that crucial confidence is going to be a big factor for the Eagles this season.
"We're getting better every day and we have that championship goal in the back of our mind and this team is really dedicated to doing whatever it takes to get there. The depth of this team is really exciting. The skill and intensity of practice helps us all get better," said Barnes. "Obviously we want to win a National Championship. We feel that we have the opportunity to that this year. We're going to do everything we can do to get there."
(Photo: BC Women's Hockey/Twitter)