A Double Dose Of Nurses Takes Aim At National Championships

Kia Nurse, left, is going for her second basketball national championship at UConn. Sarah Nurse is looking for her first hockey title at Wisconsin. Courtesy Steve Slade, David Stluka

MINNEAPOLIS -- Gatherings of the extended Nurse family in Hamilton, Ontario, usually at Christmastime, are a lot less competitive than they used to be. Sarah Nurse is 21 now, a junior left wing on Wisconsin's second-ranked hockey team, years removed from little-kid games of hide-and-seek with her cousin Kia, 20, a sophomore guard for defending NCAA basketball champion UConn.

In a family brimming with athletic high-achievers -- so many it requires a roster to keep track -- the two are more likely to chill than grab a basketball or a hockey stick.

"I think now we're all at a point where, when we get together, it's for a day or two, and it's a time where we kind of want to take a break from our sports," said Sarah Nurse, the leading goal scorer for the NCAA tournament-bound Badgers.

"The conversation kind of goes, 'How's everything going? How's school? How's hockey? How's basketball?' And then we move on and talk about other things, just like every other family."

Kia Nurse knows her cousin is just a text or a phone call away, a comforting thought at tournament time. Sarah seeks her first NCAA championship with the Badgers (34-3-1), who face Mercyhurst in a national quarterfinal Saturday night in Madison, Wisconsin. Win, and Sarah reaches her third Frozen Four in three seasons; Wisconsin lost to Minnesota in the semifinals the past two.

Meanwhile, Kia and her teammates await Selection Monday and a path back to the Final Four. If successful, it would be the fourth consecutive championship for the Huskies (32-0) and Kia's second.

"She's always been there for me," Kia said of Sarah in a telephone interview from Storrs, Connecticut. "I've been fortunate to watch her have success at her own sport, learn from her, and take those things and bring them to my own sport."

Athletics dominate two generations of Nurses. Sarah's father, Roger, excelled in lacrosse in Canada and now referees in its National Lacrosse League. Her uncle Richard Nurse, Kia's dad, was wide receiver and running back in the Canadian Football League, while Richard's wife, Cathy (maiden name Doucette), played basketball at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Another aunt, Raquel, starred as a point guard at Syracuse and later married a classmate, NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Sarah is the oldest of three children, and her younger brothers -- Elijah, 18, and Isaac, 16 -- also show hockey promise. Elijah missed the season with the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds recovering from shoulder surgery, while Isaac had 15 goals and 16 assists in 49 games for Brantford in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

On Kia's side of the family -- she's the youngest of three -- older sister Tamika, 28, played basketball at Oregon and Bowling Green. Brother Darnell, 21, is in his first full season as a defenseman for the Edmonton Oilers, who chose him seventh overall in the 2013 entry draft.

"(Sarah) and my brother were kind of that same age, that weird age, where they decided they wanted to play hockey, and we weren't really sure why," Kia said playfully. "But it worked out for both of them really well."

The Nurse parents urged their kids to try multiple sports. Sarah and Kia lived about five minutes apart in Hamilton, attended different schools, and faced each other in soccer, basketball and cross country. Sarah remembers she and Kia running together during city cross country meets until the final stretch, when it was every girl for herself. And Kia recalled scoring on Sarah, a goalie, in soccer.

Eventually, Sarah settled on hockey.

"It was just the skating, the speed of the game," Sarah said during last weekend's Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Face-Off. "I liked basketball. I liked soccer. But I absolutely loved skating.

"I started when I was 3. We had a pond probably two minutes from my house. My dad would take us there in the winter. He said once I went, I just went. I never looked back."

Speed and a long braided ponytail remain Sarah's trademarks. Her scoring and two-way play improved each season at Wisconsin. A third-team all-conference selection this season, Sarah's career-high 24 goals (tied for sixth in the nation) boosted a Badgers team that relies on defense and puck control. Wisconsin allowed only 26 goals as Ann-Renee Desbiens set an NCAA record with 20 shutouts, the most by a man or woman.

Sarah also stands out on the penalty kill, contributing three short-handed goals (tied for third nationally) to a unit with the best kill rate in Division 1: 94.5 percent.

"She's on the power play and does a nice job there, but her strengths are in those 5-on-5 situations where somebody has the puck," Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. "She separates the puck from that player, and then she's gone. Same on the penalty kill, where she's sneaky fast. A defender might think she has time and space. She'll take it away, create a turnover and maybe get a short-handed goal."

WCHA champion Wisconsin isn't on television anywhere near as much as UConn, so Kia rarely gets to see her cousin play. Two years ago, Kia was thrilled when a goal Sarah scored against Minnesota-Duluth -- a nifty backhand on an odd-man rush -- made SportsCenter's Top 10.

"I remember watching SportsCenter and going, 'Oh, that's my cousin,' " Kia said. "Obviously she plays for a top program, and it's fun to brag to my hockey friends out here that I've got a cousin at Wisconsin."