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From a hoops family, Gophers' Taylor Heise starring on the hard water

Life changed for the Heise family on their dairy farm outside Lake City, Minn., one day when daughter Taylor brought home a flier and said she wanted to become the first member of this basketball family to try out her skills on the hockey rink.

MINNEAPOLIS – It is a scene that has no doubt played out thousands of times in the family kitchens all across the self-proclaimed State of Hockey. A child comes home from school with a flier about how to get involved in this funny game with the ice and the sticks and the puck, so suited to Minnesota with its extended winter months.

As a first grader, Taylor Heise came home from school to her family’s southeastern Minnesota home one day and told her parents all about her interest in trying hockey. It was unexpected news from the mouth of their daughter for Amy and Tony Heise, both of whom had played college basketball, and who were raising their family on a dairy farm outside Lake City, Minn., which does not have its own hockey program.

“It was a tough few nights, because we live in Timbuktu, where there is no hockey,” said Tony Heise, Taylor’s father. “We knew if we started hockey, it would be a long road.”

He means that quite literally. For the Heise family, Taylor’s unconventional choice came to mean daily trips to Red Wing (roughly 30 minutes each way) for youth hockey and for school once Taylor open enrolled there, and driving to and from the Twin Cities (one to two hours each way, depending on traffic) four days a week for off-season hockey.

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Taylor Heise

“I was her (basketball) coach and she was a good basketball player. I knew it would end that story too. So it was tough, but you could tell she enjoyed hockey and loved playing, so we decided to give it a shot,” Tony said, noting that hockey in Lake City consists of one day a week where sticks and pucks are allowed on the outdoor skating rink in town. “It just kind of snowballed from there. She’s a good athlete, so whatever sport it is, she picks it up pretty quick, and she’s a focused girl where if she likes something, she’s jumping into the deep end and going after it.”

Shooting senior

As the focus of the Minnesota Gophers’ offense this season, Heise knew there would be attention paid to her by opponents. A year ago she was the understudy to teammate and best friend Grace Zumwinkle. With the latter now playing in Team USA’s residency program in advance of the 2022 Winter Olympics, there was no formal conversation between Heise and Zumwinkle to pass the Gophers torch. Neither of them needed to put it into words.

“There was no conversation, but me and her played together for a while at Minnesota and it’s awesome to see her take her game to a whole other level this season, making plays and if she’s not the one scoring she’s setting someone else up,” Zumwinkle said, rattling off the attributes that have Heise leading the Gophers in scoring and third in the WCHA offensively after 18 games. “Her creativity in the offensive zone and being able to see plays that other people might not see. She has a great shot and when it’s just her and the goalie, she’s pretty much unstoppable.”

Heise made it a goal to have between 10 and 15 shots per game this season. Thus far, playing on the team’s top line, 14 of those dozens of shots have gone in the net for the Gophers senior, along with collecting 18 assists. Heise was recently named the national player of the month for November. It is a step into the spotlight that her coach saw coming.

“I hate the word ‘potential’ but Taylor has always had that in her and has had better-than-average seasons for us in her first three years with us. But those of us who knew her knew that her ceiling was really higher,” said Gophers coach Brad Frost. “Right from the get-go she’s been playing so solid. She’s skating at a more powerful level, she’s shooting the puck, and not just shooting it but is really accurate with it.”

That go-to offense manifested itself almost immediately in the Gophers’ biggest game of the season – thus far – last weekend in Madison. The Badgers are two-time defending national champs, were undefeated, and had gone 4-0-1 versus Minnesota last season. On the first shift of their first meeting of this season, Heise scored just 27 seconds after the opening puck drop, setting the immediate tone for a 3-2 Gophers win.

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Gopher sophomore Taylor Heise (9) celebrates a goal against Wisconsin. Heise entered the weekend series on Jan. 17-18 against Ohio State with 13 goals, the third most on the Gophers. Photo by Brad Rempel

Ridder, not residency

If there is one perceived disappointment in the season that Heise is having, it might be the fact that she is playing at Ridder Arena, and not at the Super Rink in Blaine with Team USA. Frost said that Heise is having an Olympic-caliber season on the college rink, but for her part, Heise is fully supportive of everyone who got to wear the red, white and blue and says there is no bitterness on her part.

“My thing is God does everything for a reason, and I’m here for a reason, having such a great time,” Heise said. “It stung a little bit, but I’m here for a reason and everything is going well.”

Before and after games, she can count on texts of encouragement from Zumwinkle and from her brother Nate, a sophomore guard on the Northern Iowa basketball team. Named to the Missouri Valley Conference’s all-freshman team last season, Nate is her biggest supporter and her biggest competitor, Taylor said.

With another brother, Ryan, playing basketball for Lake City, the Heise clan is still primarily a family that dribbles. But Zumwinkle pointed out that Heise has always been one to do what is right, even if it goes against the norm.

“I loved basketball but at the end of the day, hockey is more freeing to me,” Heise said. “I’m more independent so I felt like I’d be able to learn this and do it on my own. I’m blessed to be where I’m at today, and I wouldn’t be here unless I got that flier in first grade.”

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