By Al Mattei

One of the most enduring images broadcast during the live early-morning gold-medal women's ice hockey game from the Nagano Olympics was the overwhelming jubilation of a group of students crowded around a television in Wallingford, Conn., where Angela Ruggiero attended prep school.

Since then, the braintrust at USA Hockey and the coaching staff led by Ben Smith have had no qualms about bringing in very young and skilled talent to the national-team pool.

In 2006, the Americans' designated prodigy is 18-year-old Sarah Parsons, a graduate of Dedham Nobles & Greenough (Mass.) who has deferred her matriculation to Dartmouth College until after the Olympics.

But her talent and status belies a rough start to her life. Born a month premature, she developed a Group B strep infection that took six days and a team of dedicated medical professionals to cure.

You might not know this but for the fact that Parsons appears to play every shift as it it were her last.

And she talks about her experiences with a breathless enthusiasm.

"So far, it's been unbelievable," she said after a multi-point night towards the end of Team USA's pre-Olympic domestic tour. "I'm so happy that I've been able to do it; it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

It's an opportunity which is not unique on the team. Julie Chu was a mere teenager when she wore the USA colors in Salt Lake 2002.

"Back in 2002, when I was in the residency program, I was on Cloud 9 the whole time," Chu recalls. "I learned a lot and I grew a lot. I think it is important to start kids in the development program at a young age, and Sarah Parsons is a great example of that. She deferred a year from Dartmouth and has made a huge difference for our team."

Parsons has been a prodigious scorer since coming through the ranks of the world-famous Assabet Valley developmental program. She scored more than 200 goals for Nobles & Greenough, catching the eye of the U.S. selectors. She proved herself in the U-22 ranks, helping the Americans to five wins and a draw in six exhibition matches with the Canadian junior national teams, then helping the senior women's national team to the 2005 World Championship, a game won in a post-overtime shootout against Canada.

"Sarah Parsons has that indefinable knack of scoring goals, and she's been doing it for quite a while," Smith says. "That's one of the hardest things to learn or teach. She has shown at camps all through the age groups that she scores. I think it's incumbent upon our program to give her a chance to see if she can do that at this level."

"Whenever a player is developed enough that they can play at a national-team level, whether in high school, college, or out of college, it's key to get them into the program," says Chu. "They're going to be an asset to the team."

Shortly before the Torino Olympics, Parsons started showing flashes of brilliance in a 3-1 win over Finland in Trenton, N.J. Her speed and willingness to use it flummoxed the fit Finns.

"I think you can see with Sarah that she's ready to be here," says Team USA's Katie King, one of only four players to have been with Team USA in the Nagano, Salt Lake, and Torino Olympics.