November 23, 2009

Cornell's Martino a heady player

Jess Martino (photo: Darl Zehr/Cornell)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Nobody has to tell Cornell sophomore Jess Martino to keep her head up. Her head is always up.

Part of that is the way she plays the game. A rushing defenseman, her biggest asset may be her ice vision, one reason she managed 13 assists last season – most among Big Red defensemen.

Part of it is pride. The path from Winthrop, Mass., to the Ivy League is not a well-worn one, but one she’s followed, right into a large role on the ice and a promising future off of it.

And part of it stems from … well, self-preservation.

Growing up in Winthrop, the 5-foot-5 Martino played on boys’ teams through the eighth grade, where body-checking is allowed and a player who’s looking down at the puck while skating – regardless of gender – is asking to be drilled.

“Everyone always asks, ‘Should girls play with girls or with boys?’” said two-time U.S. Olympic team player Courtney Kennedy (Woburn, Mass.), who coached Martino at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols and is now on the staff at Boston College. “I think girls can get a lot out of playing with boys. You know if you don’t have your head up and you’re not moving your feet, you’re going to get clocked.”

The head stayed up. The rest of her game followed suit.

“I’m never the strongest or the fastest out there, but I can read the game pretty well,” said Martino. “Playing boys’ hockey, I was forced to keep my head up and see what was in front of me.”

It wasn’t a huge surprise to Cornell coach Doug Derraugh that Martino had the impact she did as a freshman, playing her way onto the power-play and penalty-killing units. Maybe what was more surprising that she came to Cornell at all.

Growing up in Winthrop, Martino would wake up each morning and go the bed each night with the take-offs and landings at Logan Airport as the background noise. And she was never out of earshot from the cheers emanating from Boston College, where her father and grandfather played, and her older brother – Nick – was the team statistician during BC’s run to the 2008 national title.

But a few things steered her away from The Heights, the main one being that as a senior at BB&N, she wasn’t generating interest from BC -- or any other Division 1 schools. She enrolled at Cushing Academy for a postgraduate year, but by then the Eagles already had nine defensemen on board for the next season, and no spot for another.

There was also a yearning to expand her boundaries. Former Cornell assistant coach Kim Insalaco was aware of her at BB&N, and Derraugh liked what he saw from her during an Under-18 national camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. She was heading to Ithaca.

“I kind of wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Martino, a left-handed shot, is coming off a freshman season that saw her lead all Cornell defensemen with 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists). She collected three assists in her first college game against Vermont, and soon had a role on the Big Red’s power play and penalty kill.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a freshman defenseman be able to do that,” said Derraugh.

This year, her role will be even bigger. With standout forward Rebecca Johnston and promising would-be freshman Brianne Jenner gobbled up by the Canadian national team, the Big Red’s strength should be on defense, where sophomores Martino, Amanda Young and Jenna Paulson join captain Kelly McGinty and a pair of freshmen.

The Big Red, 12-14-5 and eighth-place finishers in ECAC Hockey last year, are seeking their first-ever top-four finish. That might be a tall order, with teams like St. Lawrence, Dartmouth and Harvard entrenched at the top.

They were slated to be tested right out of the gate, with two games against Mercyhurst -- last year’s Division I runner-up -- to open, one against Dartmouth and one with Harvard. All three of those teams opened the season ranked in the top 10.

Not that a player like Martino gets daunted very easily. She began playing hockey to emulate her older brother, Nick, and cousin, Chris Prew. Soon after, she was skating on boys’ teams with the full backing of her parents, Peter and Kim.

“I grew up in a place and time where there weren’t many parents letting their kids play sports that were viewed as ‘boy sports,’" she said. “My parents allowed and encouraged me.”

Kennedy said that as focused as Martino is on the ice, she also likes to have a good time off it.

“She’s the first one to paint her face and go watch a football game,” said Kennedy. “She has a lot of fun.”

On the ice, though, she’s all business. A woman in business.

“She’s the kind of player, if you go to watch the games, you don’t really notice her,” said Derraugh. “But, from a coach’s standpoint, you really appreciate what she does.”

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.