In 2016, the sleepy Connecticut school of Post University iced its first-ever women's hockey team.
Starting any new NCAA program from the ground up was always going to prove challenging, but it was particularly difficult for a school of this size. Enrolment numbers say there are almost 4,000 students at Post, but most of them are taking online courses. In actuality, there are only around 1,000 students on campus.
The inaugural women's team had 16 players on the roster before some were whittled out by the NCAA eligibility clearinghouse for failing to meet certain academic requirements. So not only were the Eagles made up almost entirely of freshman, but for most games, they only had eight skaters available. That meant a lot of ice time to go around for not many girls.
It's a good thing local Kendall Fitzgerald happened to be one of those eight. A naturally gifted cross-country runner, Fitzgerald was able to play for very long stretches and ended up leading the team in scoring that season.
"She's just a freakish athlete," says Post head coach Heath Isaacson. "You hear people talk about different pro athletes that are just athletically better than everyone else; she's one of those people. Last year, there was a game that she played over a 10-minute shift and I basically had to drag her off the ice."
The Eagles never really had a chance at competing in year one, going 0-23 with some pretty lopsided scorelines. And sure, Fitzgerald was still getting victories off the ice as she absolutely tore it up for the cross country and track teams. But for this humble kid from Kamloops, getting accolades like Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) Track Athlete of the Year or becoming Post's first individual student-athlete to qualify for a national cross country championship was never part of the plan.
She even gave up running after Grade 10 because she lost interest. The only reason she went to Post was to play hockey. In fact, she enrolled without even touring the university. That she ended up becoming a three-sport NCAA athlete just sort of happened.
"Coming out of high school, I still wanted to play hockey and that was my best opportunity to do it," says Fitzgerald. "I decided to go to Post and then ended up joining cross country and track when I got there."I got approached in the weight room and the cross country coach (Rick Hammer) was like, 'Hey, we're looking for more people because we have a small roster.' I said, 'Why not?' It didn't really overlap with hockey much, so I just joined the team."
While there may have been little overlap in her freshman year, in her sophomore season, the hockey schedule expanded to 30 games. That meant three weekends where she was competing for both teams, including two instances when she went and ran a 6km race (in under 23 minutes) in the morning and then flew out to play hockey that night. But both of her coaches were fine with Fitzgerald running the gamut, so to speak.
"My thing is, these girls only have four years of college athletics," says Isaacson. "College should be a time to do the things you love. Why not do it when you're here?"
Never more was that "freakish athleticism" on display than on Nov. 18, 2017, when she ran a season-best 22:25.7 to finish 91st out of 247 at the NCAA DII Cross Country Championship in Indiana, then went up to Wesleyan University and added an assist in a tough 5-2 loss that night.
Despite that natural ability as a runner, Fitzgerald was a little reluctant to compete in NCAA Regionals and Nationals: that's how much she didn't want to miss a hockey game.
"I don't know that I've ever coached someone that's been a more team-first person," says Isaacson. "If I thought the best chance for us to win was sitting her for three minutes, she'd be all for that. If I thought it was best to play her five minutes straight, she'd be all for that, too. Whatever it takes to make the team successful, that's what she wants for the team, the program and herself."
On the ice, the Eagles made some big strides in their second season, winning the program's first game, during a season that they went 2-27-2. Fitzgerald finished the year with three goals and six assists.
With the inaugural group heading into their junior year next season, and a new crop of freshman joining up, the team is ready to reach new heights. And it will be Fitzgerald's job to lead them there.
"There's a reason she was named captain at 19 years old," says Isaacson. "She's very humble. We got input from the team after our first season, who they thought exhibited the leadership qualities we needed to move forward, and 14 out of the 15 people put Kendall's name. The only person that didn't was Kendall. Right there shows a lot about her personality."
It doesn't take much time around her before it becomes quite clear – it really isn't in her nature to talk about herself or get hung up on individual successes. And there are many successes: the latest award being the CACC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Yes, while playing sports for nearly the entire eight months she's at school, Fitzgerald still maintains a 3.98 GPA while majoring in biology.
But she really doesn't get too high about the awards. The last one, she only found out about from her grandmother, who happened see it on Twitter.
"I guess it's nice to be recognized, but for me, it wasn't really as big of a deal," she says. "I'm just trying to put my best foot forward, both in the classroom to get my degree and do everything I can to help my teammates out on the track and on the ice."