Profiles

Always ready for a game change

Taylor Willard
(Photo by Brian Jenkins, courtesy of UVM Athletics)

Taylor Willard studied, and may keep studying, in a state that lends its nickname to a popular brand of coffee.

In her future, though, the conventional kickstarter and perk-up potion for an American workday may assume positions outside drinking cups.

This past week, several outlets highlighted a study suggesting coffee’s cardiovascular benefits. That study spread one week after California regulators decided against plastering cancer-warning labels on the product’s containers.

In February, Forbes was apt to note conflicting contemporary findings regarding java’s effect on cancer risk and treatment.

The moral is no ruling is final in science, just as no lead is safe in a hockey game. That is why, if and when she applies her major in nutrition and food services from the University of Vermont to a vocation, Willard will have her head on a swivel.

“It’s always changing,” she said in a recent phone interview with Pucks and Recreation. “So it’s really hard to have a perspective on something.

“Every year something new comes out about certain food or certain nutrients. Certain fats are better for you, or not. There’s not one set thing with nutrition.”

Nor is there one set path in Willard’s post-collegiate career. Not that she is ill-equipped for the multitude of potentialities.

Coming to Vermont via suburban Chicago, Willard established herself as a playmaking two-way defender on the ice. She has a tinge of international pedigree, having represented Team USA at the 18-and-under level. And she is entering the CWHL Draft this August.

If she lands with Montreal, she would have a prime position to juggle hockey with her continued education. For now, she is favoring an extended stay in Burlington, building on the horizons she widened here.

Taylor Willard

(Photo courtesy of Taylor Willard)

“There’s a lot of different ways you can go with nutrition,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do something science-related.

“When I went to school, I originally went into dietetics, where you’re a dietitican and you help people with their diet. But I felt like I wanted to go broader.”

Fostering a finer grasp on the ever-evolving studies on food safety and resultant recommended regulations hit home. One of the many doorstops Willard has whipped out props open the threshold to medical school.

Without any prompting, she explained how that possible path became personal.

“I always really wanted to be a doctor or nurse, or just be in the hospital to help people in general,” she said. “Nutrition is a very key part of that. I could work on nutrition in a hospital setting.

“For example, I thought about going into oncology a lot…cancer affects a lot of people.”

Her voice briefly broke when she added, “my dad actually passed away from cancer.”

Through her father’s experience, Willard witnessed the ongoing, universal, team-oriented push for better survival and recovery rates among cancer patients. Besides the emotion of her father’s memory, she has her education to bring to her role in the battle.

“When you’re on chemo, you can’t eat certain things,” she noted. “There is hospital food, obviously, but sometimes hospital food isn’t the best option.”

When the time comes to devote the majority of her time to food science, Willard will have her chance to influence an improved breadth and quality of options. Whether she stays at UVM or latches elsewhere, she is presently eyeing a master’s degree in nutrition.

The legacy of another dearly-missed figure, one from her sport’s extended family, will be attached to that endeavor. Through her academic prowess, on-ice performance and community involvement, Willard garnered this year’s Sarah Devens Award.

Taylor Willard

(Photo courtesy of Taylor Willard)

Open to women’s players in Hockey East and the ECAC, the award memorializes a former three-sport star at Dartmouth. Devens was dubbed “the Devil” in the most endearing context for her fastidious drive to better herself and, by extension, her teams. She was a plugger in the classroom, defying any real or perceived assertions that she was below Ivy League caliber.

Of her personal appeal, then-Dartmouth field hockey coach Julie Dayton once told Sports Illustrated, “It seemed she was everyone’s older sister.” Those in ostensibly thankless positions always felt her thanks through her gestures.

Author Sonja Steptoe added, “She would have lunch with someone she met at the rink after a game, drop off a bag of caramel cremes to Dayton, visit a friend in the hospital, mail a gag gift and fire off a dozen E-mail messages–all between classes and practices.”

When Devens took her own life in 1995, attendance at her funeral came close to the thousands. One season later, the ECAC inaugurated the award in her name for “leadership and commitment both on and off the ice.”

Since six programs seceded to create Hockey East in 2002, the award has applied to both conferences. Although Willard is only the second WHEA player to win it, breaking up an ECAC dynasty that started after Karen Thatcher of Providence prevailed in 2006.

She is also among the first Devens Award winners whose life did not overlap with Devens herself.

More than two weeks after her selection, Willard’s struggle for words evoked the prize’s namesake.

“I’m just really honored to be recognized and chosen for this award between both conferences,” she said. “I know it’s a big honor to have. From everything I’ve heard and read, Sarah Devens was just an amazing athlete and person. I’m just honored to be chosen for this award.”

The Devens Award yields $10,000 toward the recipient’s continuing education. With that aid, as she breaks out of her zone, Willard sees the passing lanes proliferating.

The best news may be that this game offers more time for a scenic route toward her ultimate goal.

“I have a lot of different things that I feel like I want to do,” Willard admits. “I would want to work in a hospital, but I have a love for hockey still.”

A part of Vermont’s leadership structure as a junior and senior, Willard would not rule out a college coaching job. But the comparatively finite nature of a playing career has her seeking and savoring every sip of that cup.

“College hockey is a lot like a job. It’s a fun job to have, of course. But you still have to make sure you’re showing up every day and giving everything 100 percent. Otherwise, you’re not doing your jobs the way you should be.” – Taylor Willard

“You’re never too old to coach,” she reasoned, “so I want to keep playing for right now.”

Still, an assistant assignment behind the bench would sustain her blended brew of studying and skating.

“Being a coach at the collegiate level, I could always get my degree while I’m coaching,” Willard said.

Ah, yes, the master’s in nutrition, and every avenue that unlocks. Once she steps in there, much like in her sport, she will be primed to expect the unexpected and adjust on the fly.

But whatever her vocation and task, Willard will want to be all-in all the time. Missing a commitment, particularly a practice or contest, was always a taboo setback from beginners’ to Burlington.

That adamancy paid off in shaping her legacy at UVM. A mild injury barred her from playing in the 2017-18 season opener. Otherwise, she dressed every night as a Catamount, joining classmate Amanda Drobot with a new career program record of 145.

“Growing up playing hockey, and also in college, any athlete learns time management,” she said.

“That really helps in the real world too. You still have to manage your time with your job and then also with real life, with possibly family.

“And then, being a captain for two years at UVM really taught me how to be a leader, work on my communication skills. Just developing as a person and handling the responsibility factor.

“College hockey is a lot like a job. It’s a fun job to have, of course. But you still have to make sure you’re showing up every day and giving everything 100 percent. Otherwise, you’re not doing your jobs the way you should be.”

Jobs, plural? Better keep the Green Mountain pot brewing. That is assuming Willard and company’s educated findings keep coffee’s green light shining.

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Al Daniel

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