Born Free: Megan Keller’s Rise to Becoming the Nation’s Best Defenseman

Megan Keller

The hardest questions are sometimes the simplest.

 

Athletes and coaches can go on for days analyzing a play, talking about a leader, or explaining a win or loss. Even if the quotes don’t have substance, chances are you’re getting a sound bite of some sort.

 

But ask about a favorite moment, on the playing field or off it, and the whirlwind hits. For whatever reason—whether too many great snapshots of the exciting life of an athlete, trying to remain PG, or maybe just not having an interesting enough life—that question freezes everyone up.

 

Tori Sullivan and Andie Anastos had no trouble with it.

 

The two have had a lot of moments with their favorite topic, Boston College defenseman Megan Keller, but one recently sticks out more than any other. A couple of weeks ago, Keller took a trip to Fenway Park with Anastos, Makenna Newkirk, and Serena Sommerfield. It wasn’t for a Red Sox game or ceremonial first pitch, but for a Kid Rock concert. The country/rock/rap star holds a dear place in the hearts of Sullivan, Keller, and Anastos. The three HoneyBaked alumni spent their summer times in Northern Michigan—well, the Bloomfield Hills area, but that doesn’t flow with “All Summer Long”—near the home of the man born Robert Ritchie.

 

According to Anastos and Sullivan, you might have guessed the concert was last night. Meg, as they call her, just can’t stop wearing her black Kid Rock T-shirt, with his name, face, and “BOSTON, MA” emblazoned in red, white, and blue on the front. Both of them began cracking up as they recalled it. A classic Meg story: funny and goofy.

 

Keller, naturally, had a different kind of laugh.

 

“They spilled that secret?” Keller said, hiding her embarrassment. “Well, it’s my favorite shirt.”

 

Fortunately for Keller, the Kid Rock memory will soon fade—even if the shirt stays in her closet and the love of “Born Free” still lingers. Sullivan and Anastos know other, better moments have yet to come. It’s not hard to feel that way when you’ve got the best defenseman in the nation on your team.

 

***

 

Keller’s parents, Greg and Lynn, weren’t happy with their daughter.

 

Once again, she had biked over to the Anastos house without telling them. The two didn’t live far from one another in Farmington Hills, Mich.—only about a three-minute drive—but, like any parents would do, they needed to know where their daughter was. It’s a simple mistake—Keller just didn’t call them. But the punishment was severe: they’d drive and get her, or even take her phone away. To Anastos, that’s just another day in the life.

 

“That’s typical Meg stuff,” Anastos said.

 

Typical Meg stuff includes pranks, like the times when Keller would refuse to air out her hockey bag, and stuff her smelly undershirt in the faces of Sullivan and Anastos. And, of course, there was hockey—that’s as typical Meg as you’re going to get. But Keller also tried her hand at other sports, like basketball and baseball. Sullivan recalled a Pony League baseball tournament the two played in Cooperstown, N.Y. Keller starred as a pitcher and shortstop, the latter in the new, tall, Cal Ripken-esque style, while Sullivan also pitched and played first base. In the tournament—an all-boys one, at that—Keller and Sullivan helped their team get to the final game. The tournament had a whopping 105 teams from across the nation.   

 

When baseball gave way to softball, Keller didn’t make the transition. But her time on the court didn’t have as graceful an end. Unlike Anastos, who spent her four years as a two-sport athlete, Keller’s basketball career ended after her growth spurt. She played the point for much of her early career, but by the time she grew, she had to go to the post.

 

So Keller decided hockey was for her, full-time. She immediately found a home as a defenseman, where she had a rough adjustment. Keller wanted to chase the puck, but her dad reminded her she had another role. It didn’t exactly help.

 

“My dad would tell me, ‘You’re defense, you have to be on the blue line!’” Keller said. “So for an entire game, I would just stand on the blue line. I wouldn’t go into the zone, I would just go blue line to blue line.”

 

When she wasn’t in trouble or on the court/ice/diamond, Keller also spent a lot of time at the Anastoses in her younger days. Anastos’s father, Tom, said that Keller was like having another daughter in the house. One day, the Anastos family went to see the girls play in a boys’ hockey league at a rink in nearby Livonia. He paid close attention to her skating, how she handled the puck as a defender, but also how she integrated herself into the offensive game. Tom has a keen eye for talent. He was the commissioner of the now-defunct CCHA at the time, and is now the head men’s hockey coach at Michigan State. But he never saw anyone like her.

 

“I turned to my wife and I said, ‘That kid’s going to be an Olympian,’” Tom said.

 

***

 

It was at HoneyBaked, the club team coached by Tom, where Keller made her first big impression. HoneyBaked, a class AAA travel team, got to the state finals, but lost the championship game. Luckily, since they were hosting the national tournament, they automatically got a bye into it. In the tournament, Tom recalls a shootout in which Keller—again, a defenseman—had to step up. She scored an unbelievable goal that made everyone leave their seats. In the national championship semis for the U-16 bracket, Keller had a play in which she came around the back of the net. Seeing her forwards tightly guarded by the opponent’s D, Keller made an indirect pass off the boards that found Haley McLean—the fourth of BC’s HoneyBaked alumnae—near the blue line. The pass hit McLean’s stick perfectly, and she roofed one for a goal.

 

HoneyBaked’s success earned them trips to tournaments across the country, including Boston. While the girls took a visit in the summer between Keller and Sullivan’s sophomore and junior year, they got a chance to visit the legendary programs in the area—BC, Boston University, Northeastern, Harvard. In Chestnut Hill, Courtney Kennedy was waiting at the top of Linden Lane to greet her.

 

The associate head coach had begun scouting Keller back in U-14. A two-time Olympic medalist from behind the blue line herself, Kennedy was blown away by Keller’s ability to stick handle in tight spots and her bomb of a shot. She stood at nearly six feet, but had the agility of a player 5-foot-4. Keller, according to Kennedy, could’ve picked any school in the nation.

 

But as it turns out, she had nothing to worry about. Sullivan and Keller were already plotting to join the strong team Kennedy and Katie Crowley had been building. Anastos and McLean were already committed at this point, and Keller and Sullivan had met established BC stars like Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa. Before they could take in all the other non-hockey factors—the allure of the city, great academics, etc.—they were sold.

 

“Meg and I looked at each other, and we both gave each other this look,” Sullivan said. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah this is where I want to be!’ And she gave me this look like, ‘Yeah, me too.’”

 

***

At BC, Keller has had two defining traits: her physicality and skill in the offensive zone. One has come naturally, and is the part that she loves the most. The other—well, that took a lot of getting used to.

 

Unlike men’s hockey, where large Russian and Canadian men will pound each other into the boards repeatedly, the women’s game focuses far more on finesse and puck handling. Still, that doesn’t mean an enforcer isn’t needed every once in a while. Keller isn’t a goon like the typical hit man on a hockey team—rarely is the most skilled defenseman the one who goes out for the hits. Yet she still has the nastiness in her. And Keller takes that role with pride.

 

She particularly remembers laying a couple of big hits on last year’s Patty Kazmaier Award winner, Kendall Coyne. The Eagles and Huskies have had a fierce rivalry brewing for the past couple of years. 2015-16 was supposed to be Northeastern’s time to shine, or at least make it competitive. It didn’t exactly turn out that way—BC won all five of the two teams’ matchups. Keller was a big reason why. Tasked with chasing down Coyne at all times, Keller held her to only six points in five games, a far cry from her 2.27 per game average (84 total). Keller’s strong defensive effort includes holding Coyne scoreless in the Beanpot final and to a garbage-time goal in the NCAA Quarterfinals. And she wasn’t apologetic about getting her size in there, too.

 

“Any time you can catch Kendall, it’s something else,” Keller said, “but yeah, I took her into the boards pretty good.”

 

It has made her the target of many penalties—39 thus far in her career. Sullivan believes that her huge size difference over the competition has made her the unfair target of referees. But that doesn’t mean she should stop playing the way she does. Keller’s style, Sullivan says, gives the Eagles a unique presence on the ice. She needs to be the enforcer.

 

“It can be a pain to play against [in practice], Sullivan said. “She’s the only one who could do that job.”

 

As a freshman, Keller prided herself on that physicality and her defensive skill. But she didn’t like to shoot. Kennedy wasn’t okay with that.

 

“Court’s always telling me, ‘Shoot the puck, Keller, shoot the puck!’” Keller said with a laugh. “Kinger, tell her to shoot the puck!”

 

Kennedy doesn’t care if the shot comes out ugly, as long as she gets it off. Because when she sends off a one-timer, it’s a thing of beauty. Keller’s shot is a heat-seeking missile—it can find the net or a stick in front of the net with ease. It stays low, making it harder for the goaltender to see it from distance. On offense, and especially on the power play, Keller’s ability to become a fourth attacker is invaluable.

 

Her extra work over the summer took her from being a good player to a Patty Kazmaier Award Top 10 Finalist. She jumped from 24 points—four goals, 20 assists—to 52 points—12 goals, 40 assists. That effort made her the highest scoring defenseman in the country, 11th overall in the nation, and earned her a berth on the AHCA All-America First Team and the Hockey East Best Defenseman Award. That jump has ended the lessons from Kennedy.

 

“It’s hardly ever that I have to critique something,” Kennedy said. “As much as I’d like to take credit for it, this kid’s a special player. You don’t have Megan Kellers walking in the door every day.”

 

***

 

Keller always has her sights set on another chance at a national championship. The Eagles won’t have as easy a road as last year. They’re missing Carpenter and Skarupa, plus four other strong players. BC will also be breaking in its burgeoning sophomore class, as well as highly touted freshmen Caitrin Lonergan, Delaney Belinskas, Caroline Ross, and Bridget McCarthy.

 

But Pyeongchang is in her sights in 2018. She has already had a taste of international play, as she won a silver medal with Team USA at the 2014 IIHF U-18 World Championships and was an assistant captain on the U-22 Select Team this winter. That experience has led to her role as an assistant captain on the Eagles this season. She also has just earned a spot on Team USA’s roster for the 2016 Four Nations Cup on Nov. 1-5. Next year, if the Olympic opportunity arises, she’ll have to take a redshirt year, like Carpenter did back in Sochi in 2014. But she will have no hesitation about doing so.

 

“If it comes, yeah, I’m not going to pass it up,” Keller said.  

 

It shouldn’t be a problem for her. Tom Anastos believes that “there’s no one in college hockey better than her.” Kennedy knows she has the perfect mix of ability, coachability, and personality to succeed wherever she goes. No game exemplifies that more than Keller in the 2014 Beanpot Championship. The Eagles didn’t win—it was the first loss they had in the 2014-15 season—and Keller never found the scoresheet. It wasn’t exactly the type of game BC wanted to remember.
But Kennedy says that game was the turning point for Keller’s career. After the Eagles fell down 3-2 to the Crimson midway through the second period, Keller came to the bench and started firing up her team. She immediately began using her incredible reach to aggressively go after the puck at every turn. Whenever Keller got the puck in the offensive zone, she shot it off at Emerance Maschmeyer to create a scoring chance. That moment, Kennedy feels in her gut, is what took Keller from a good defenseman to the best in the nation. And it’s only a matter of time before this once-in-a-generation player creates enough moments to make her friends forget about Kid Rock shirts and missed calls from parents. Instead, the first moment in everyone’s mind will be her raising a national championship trophy.

 

About Michael Sullivan 259 Articles
Michael Sullivan is the editor-in-chief of The Heights. After shouting out this space to his mother for two years as sports editor, he'd like to give one to his dad. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelJSully.