Taylor Heise seemed destined to be a basketball player. After all, her parents, Tony and Amy, both played hoops at Wisconsin-River Falls and a brother, Ryan, is a Lake City senior who has committed to Northern Iowa.
Not Taylor, though, who gave up basketball as a seventh-grader to concentrate on hockey. "The second I started playing hockey, I knew that it was something I loved," she said. "I loved basketball, but I could tell I loved hockey more."
The Gophers are reaping the rewards of that decision, as Heise has established herself as one of the rising stars in women's hockey. A WCHA All-Rookie selection last season, the sophomore is off to a sizzling start for the Gophers with a team-high five goals and six assists through five games. She's the center of a line with Alex Woken and Grace Zumwinkle, and the trio has combined for 13 goals and 13 assists for the nation's No. 2-ranked team.
"She's taken that step that we were hoping she would take," said Gophers coach Brad Frost, whose team defeated Robert Morris 4-3 in overtime Friday in Pittsburgh. "Big, strong, powerful. She's starting to see the game a little better and her decisionmaking's a little better with and without the puck."
Heise had a solid freshman season with the Gophers, ranking third on the team with 35 points on 12 goals and 23 assists for the NCAA runners-up. This year, however, she's rounding out her game and taking advantage of a growing frame that's reached 5-10.
"When we were recruiting her, she was about 5-4, 100 pounds, and all of the sudden she's developed into just an incredible specimen and athlete," Frost said. "She can skate really well but has really good hands for a player of her size. Her release is second to none."
Adjusting her style of play is something Heise has embraced as she's increased her strength.
"My stature has grown, and I think that's helped me," she said. "The way that I play has had to change, too. I was a super, super speed player on the perimeter because I wasn't able to get inside. Now that I have the speed and the strength, I'm able to do more things and attack in different ways."
Heise admitted that she dealt with nerves as a freshman, but her confidence is evident this year after she played for the U.S. Under-22 national team this summer.
"What I say is I play fast and free and on fire," Heise said. "Most people don't get the on-fire part, but that's just having so much endurance and firepower and wanting to be at your best."
Frost sees Heise's game maturing into one in which she uses her teammates' abilities, too.
"Quite frankly, it takes some of our Minnesota players to really get acclimated to playing at this level because in high school hockey, oftentimes they have the puck on their stick the whole time," he said. "Giving it up and getting into a space to get it back have been things that she's really worked on."
Heise's route to hockey came after she played on a coed team with her brothers, Nathan and Ryan. "One brother was the goalie, and me and my other brother were the forwards. It was so much fun playing with them." By seventh grade, she had to make a choice: stay with basketball and the Lake City school system, which doesn't offer high school hockey, or pick hockey and go to Red Wing. Hockey won out.
"I wanted to be different," she said. "I wanted to pave my own way instead of having things paved for me already."
Frost couldn't be happier.
"I don't think we've had a player quite like her," he said. "Taylor is going to be a special player.''