Last season, Wisconsin finished the season playing as well as anyone in the country, posting a 15-3-0 record after Jan. 1, including three wins over eventual national champion Minnesota-Duluth and a 2-0 win at Minnesota, which ended the Gophers’ 24-game unbeaten streak.
Although they were left on the outside looking in when the pairings for the NCAA championship were announced, the Badgers felt that they would be a force to be reckoned with in 2002-03. All they had to do was find a new coach.
Trina Bourget left the team in mid-season due to health problems and resigned at season’s end. Assistant coaches Tracy Cornell and Dan Koch led the team during the second half of the season but the reigns of the team were turned over to Wisconsin legend Mark Johnson, a two-time All-American in college, an 11-year NHL veteran and member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team.
Johnson kept both Cornell and Koch as assistants and the transition seems to be going smoothly. Johnson hopes the good things from last season will carry over into this season.
“I hope the confidence the team gained during the second half carries over,” he said. “We want to start where we left off.”
The Badgers have a veteran team with eight seniors and 19 letterwinners returning. No where is that experience more evident than in goal, where Jackie MacMillan enters her fourth season as the team’s number-one goalie. She led the nation in goals against average and backstopped a defense which was second nationally in scoring defense. She’s also the one player Johnson has worked with before this season.
MacMillan enrolled at Wisconsin one year before the Badger program took the ice. Rather than play club hockey, she worked out with the men’s program, with which Johnson was an assistant coach.
“Jackie’s a veteran,” Johnson said. “I had a chance to see her when she first came here and I’ve always been impressed. She has experience and will be an important part of this team.”
Although having off-season knee surgery, MacMillan is expected to be ready for the season opener. Even if she’s at less than 100 percent physically, she may have the nation’s best group of defensemen playing in front of her.
Seniors Kerry Weiland and Sis Paulsen anchor the group. Weiland earned first-team All-American honors last season and has 106 points in her career. Paulsen, who has 99 career points, is the team’s captain.
Wisconsin also returns Nicole Uliasz to its lineup. Prior to spending the 2001-02 season with the U.S. National team, the rugged, 5-9 sophomore recorded six goals and 18 points as a rookie.
Fellow sophomores Carla MacLeod, who will miss the team’s season-opener while attending the Team Canada Development Camp, and Molly Engstrom join junior Kathryn Greaves to round out the team’s defense unit.
“We have five very good defensemen,” Johnson said. “I feel very confident with any combination of those players on the ice.”
If Wisconsin can improve its scoring output, they will be tough to beat. The offense starts with senior Kendra Antony and junior Meghan Hunter. Antony is the team’s all-time leading scorer with 134 points and Hunter, who tied for the national lead as a freshman in goals (42) and points (78) has 123 career points, including 65 goals.
“There will be an opportunity for some other players to become more of an offensive threat,” Johnson said. “If some of them can enjoy success early in the season, it will build some confidence and help during the middle and late part of the season.”
Among those players who the Badgers will look to improve their offensive output are senior Kelly Kegley, who notched 22 goals and 45 points as a freshman, junior Karen Rickard, who has 25 goals during her first two seasons, and sophomore Jackie Friesen, who had 15 points as a rookie last year.
“I’m very excited to see them,” Johnson said. “I think we have depth and we should be strong. But we haven’t had a chance to face anyone yet and, in training camp, everyone seems to look good. We have a tough schedule to open the season so we’ll find out how we are right away.”
Johnson will find out where his team stands during the first four weeks of the season. The Badgers open the season at home, Oct. 12-13, by taking on ninth-ranked Northeastern. After a road series at Connecticut the following weekend, Wisconsin return home to face two-time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth and then go on the road to face No. 2 Minnesota.