Grand Falls-Windsor’s Hayley O’Grady isn’t afraid to play with the boys – she was the only female to participate in the boys’ soccer competition at the 2012 Newfoundland and Labrador Summer Games.
Hayley O'Grady might cause some soccer fans to look twice during matches in the second half of the Newfoundland and Labrador Summer Games in Carbonear and Harbour Grace this week.
After all, the girls' soccer competition at the Games concluded Tuesday morning with the Mount Pearl/South region winning gold.
The 12-year-old O'Grady, as her first name would suggest, is a girl, from Grand Falls-Windsor, originally from Mount Pearl. Not just a girl, but the only girl patrolling the pitch for the Central team in the boys’ tournament, which began Wednesday evening. And not just a player, but a striker for her team.
Central didn't have a female soccer entry at the Games.
"We almost did, but we just didn't have enough interest, so I went out for the boys team," O'Grady explains timidly. "I love it, and I like the competition more. It's better (than girls soccer). It pushes me and mentally I want to give it my all against the boys."
By all accounts, and based on her resume, O'Grady has the skills to merit playing alongside the fellas. This year alone she's been to Atlantics with the province's under-13 girls team, played with the Central team at the provincial mega tournament in Gander, in addition to making trips to St. John's to play with St. John's in metro league play and going to England with a provincial team in April.
"Hayley's a good little striker, and she knows how to play the backfield well too," said Dennis O'Grady, an admittedly biased father, but also an experienced youth soccer coach who is the president of the Exploits Minor Soccer Association.
"She knows the game and knows her limits."
As for whether Dad has any issue with his little girl on the pitch with the boys, it's never been a problem.
"The 50/50 balls are still a bit of a concern for us, but she'll go through them, she's not afraid at all," he said.
"At the mega tournament in Gander, she collided with another player in front of the net and they both got knocked down. He was a lot bigger than her, (but) when the two of them got up, she patted him on the back and asked him if he was OK."
"I'm really rough, so it's better for me," she said of playing with the boys. "I usually push them around."
Besides, she's been doing it in hockey for the last seven years since the family moved to Grand Falls-Windsor.
More than having a good soccer background, O'Grady has the sport in her blood. Older sisters Ashley and Leah were provincial soccer stars before her, both of whom represented the province at the Canada Summer Games and later nabbed full scholarships to play collegiate ball.
Ashey, 28, attended the University of Regina, while Leah, 26, fielded multiple offers before settling on Bethel University in Tennessee, where she went on to break most of that school's scoring records and was an honourable mention NAIA All-American every year of her collegiate career.
"There's 14 years between Leah and Hayley. Even when Stella (Dennis's wife and the girls' mother) was pregnant, we were involved in St. Peter's Elementary and O'Donel high teams. So Hayley's been on the field since before she was born," said Dennis.
By the age of two, she was on the field in the Mount Pearl minor soccer program, one of the smallest kids, but one who took to it right away.
"She was walking when she was six months old, and the first gift I gave her was a soccer ball," recounts Dennis. "She's been kicking it ever since."
In her first match on Wednesday, taking on Mount Pearl/South, O'Grady was hobbled by a sore knee throughout the first half, but still challenged for every ball she could and ran all out for those she could get too.
"We really like having her on the team," says Kyle Champion, one of the Central teammates who have accepted her wholeheartedly. "We didn't have enough good boys to have a team and she's a really strong player."
If Hayley needed confirmation as to how her teammates viewed her, it came at the mega tourney in Gander.
"One of the parents said 'girls should be playing on a girls team,' and I didn't say anything, I don't let it bother me, I just play my game," she says. "But some of the guys on my team stood up for me."
Yep, Hayley O'Grady is just one of the guys at the Summer Games.