In a conference which boasts the last three national champions, there’s not a lot of room at the top, especially when the teams that have claimed those titles have — at least on paper — gotten better.
Such is the case with the WCHA Women’s League as the conference heads into its fourth season.
Two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota-Duluth and two-time defending WCHA regular-season champion Minnesota are expected, as they have the last three seasons, to battle for the top spot this year. Both have added significant recruits while returning much of their roster.
However, they’re not the only teams that look to be improved. In fact, league coaches agree that everyone will be.
“We’ll be better than we were last year,” said Shannon Miller, head coach of Minnesota-Duluth. “But we’re not going to be the only team. Everyone is going to be better this year and it’s going to be hard for anyone to really move up in the standings.”
Despite winning the NCAA title last year, the Bulldogs were seeded third, and finished third at the WCHA Final Five. UMD, which ranked third nationally in scoring offense, adds Team Canada Olympian Caroline Ouellette and returns U.S. Olympic Team member Jenny Potter after a two-year absence. She led the Bulldogs in scoring with 93 points during the 1999-2000 campaign.
Minnesota, which won both the regular-season and playoff titles before finishing third at the Frozen Four, has high expectations for the coming season.
The Gophers return All-America defenseman and Patty Kazmaier Award finalist Ronda Curtin, along with 2000 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Winny Brodt, who has missed the last two seasons due to U.S. National Team commitments. Highly-touted recruits Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell, both of whom played on the U.S. Olympic Team last season, are expected to pace the offense.
Wisconsin, which finished second in the WCHA during last year’s regular season and playoffs, returns goalie Jackie MacMillan, who led the nation in goals against average, along with the entire corps of defensemen who helped the Badgers finish second nationally in scoring defense. To that blue line the Badgers also return Nicole Uliasz, who missed last season while with the U.S. National Team.
Defense and goaltending will once again be the strength of Ohio State, which has finished fourth in the WCHA standings each of the last three seasons. April Stojak returns for her senior season in goal, with classmate Emily Hudak leading a veteran group of defensemen. Up front, Jeni Creary led the team with 44 points as a freshman and was fourth among rookies nationally.
Bemidji State, the league’s most improved team a year ago, will look to continue to climb in the standings under new head coach Bruce Olson. The Beavers return more letterwinners (20) than any team in the WCHA, led by senior center Amber Fryklund, who topped the team with 16 goals and 36 points last season.
St. Cloud State, which won 17 games two seasons ago, will look to rebound from a seven-win campaign last year. New head coach Jason Lesteberg led Bemidji State’s improvement last season and will look to turn around the Huskies in 2002-03. He has a good foundation in juniors Roxanne Stang, who has 49 goals in two seasons, and Kobi Kawamoto, a two-time second-team All-WCHA pick.
Minnesota State will look to move out of the cellar with a squad that has relied on junior goalie Shari Vogt the last two seasons. Despite a 4-19-1 record last year, Vogt had a 3.79 goals against average and a .916 save percentage. Head coach Jeff Vizenor emphasized scoring in his recruiting class this year and it started to pay off with a 6-1 exhibition win over the Toronto Jr. Aeros. Sophomore transfer Melanie Salatino, who was third in goals and fourth in scoring nationally last year at Wisconsin-Superior, notched a pair of goals in the win while freshmen Devon Nichols and Amber Sharratt also scored.
First-year Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson summed up the league’s depth, saying, “It’s good for the league and good for women’s hockey. The younger players coming in are stronger players, which makes the product better and the sport grow.”
In just three years of existence, the WCHA has made a big splash in women’s college hockey, with league members winning national titles all three seasons. This year, everyone looks to have improved themselves, meaning that the battle for the WCHA championship promises to be bigger and better than ever.
Capsule profiles of each team follow. Click on any team’s name for its individual season preview.
Coach: Bruce Olson
2001-02 overall record: 12-13-8
2001-02 WCHA record: 7-11-6, 20 points, fifth place
Notes: The Beavers return 20 of 22 players from last year’s squad, which finished with 12 wins and an NCAA-leading eight ties.
He said it: “Our seniors have been through three coaches in the last three years,” Olson said. “They want to make the best of their last season. They’ve got a good attitude and know they have to work hard to improve upon what they did last season.”
Coach: Laura Halldorson
2001-02 overall record: 28-4-6
2001-02 WCHA record: 19-2-3, 41 points, first place
Notes: 2000 WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Winny Brodt returns after a two-year absence to join Ronda Curtin, who won the award last season. The duo will anchor a defense which ranked third nationally in fewest goals allowed per game.
She said it: “In 2002-03, we hope to build on last season’s success,” Halldorson said. “Our returning players will be a year older and more experienced and will be joined by an awesome class of first-year student-athletes. If we can combine the new talent with the attitude and work ethic of last year, we’re going to have a lot of fun this season.”
Coach: Shannon Miller
2001-02 overall record: 24-6-4
2001-02 WCHA record: 16-5-3, 35 points, tie-second place
Notes: The Bulldogs’ roster features five players who competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics, including newcomer Caroline Ouellette, a member of gold-medal winning Team Canada, and U.S. Olympian Jenny Potter, who returns to the UMD lineup after a two-year absence.
She said it: “Jenny is going to be a key player for us this year,” Miller said. “She has a great work ethic and a lot of energy. What she doesn’t have is a national title and that’s what I’m going to rely on her for, is to make other people hungry and to bring a spark to the team.”
Coach: Jeff Vizenor
2001-02 overall record: 4-26-2
2001-02 WCHA record: 1-22-1, three points, seventh place
Notes: The Mavericks have finished last in the WCHA in each of the league’s first three seasons, accumulating just four wins and 12 points in those three seasons.
He said it: “To move up in the standings we have to put the puck the in the net,” Vizenor said. “We have to be better offensively and on our power play.”
Coach: Jackie Barto
2001-02 overall record: 18-15-4
2001-02 WCHA record: 9-12-3, 21 points, fourth place
Notes: The Buckeyes have finished fourth in each of their three seasons in the WCHA.
She said it: “We need to be more consistent,” Barto said. “We need a more consistent effort in all three zones. We need to continue to work hard and give a good effort every night.”
St. Cloud State
Coach: Jason Lesteberg
2001-02 overall record: 7-26-1
2001-02 WCHA record: 6-17-1, 13 points, sixth place
Notes: The Huskies fell from 17 wins overall and 26 points in 2001 to seven wins, 13 points in 2002.
He said it: “I feel the main thing the players will have to do is get that winning edge back,” Lesteberg said. “Two years ago, many of these same players were on that team that won 17 games, so they know they can succeed. We have to get that attitude back where we expect to win every game we play.”
Coach: Mark Johnson
2001-02 overall record: 22-11-2
2001-02 WCHA record: 17-6-1, 35 points, tie-second place
Notes: The Badgers were 15-3-0 after Jan. 1 last season, including three wins over national champion Minnesota-Duluth.
He said it: “I hope the confidence the team gained during the second half carries over,” Johnson said. “We want to start where we left off.”