Optimism abounds at Mercyhurst, where preparations are well under way for the program’s fourth season.
Head coach Michael Sisti’s first recruiting class comes into its senior season having won 61 games; the group makes up half of the team’s 24-player roster.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Sisti said. “It’s been fun watching them grow and develop together. The team chemistry is great.”
Ranked as high as sixth nationally last year, the Lakers appear ready to step up to the next level and have plenty of experience with which to make that happen. Coming into the season, seven players had appeared in 90 or more career games and, with 12 games against teams ranked in USCHO’s preseason poll, they have their work cut out for them.
Mercyhurst got off on the right foot with a pair of one-goal wins over Bemidji State, Oct. 4-5. Last year, the Lakers lost four of their first six games, one by two goals, three by one goal and two in overtime.
“Those one-goal games can go either way,” Sisti said. “They can make or break a season and we hope winning some of those games early this year will help us down the road.”
Experience in goal is a strong argument for a successful Mercyhurst season in 2002-03. Senior Tiffany Ribble enters her final campaign with a career 1.49 goals against average and a .930 save percentage. A midseason injury last year threw sophomore Desirae Clark into the fire. She responded with a 13-win rookie season, posting a 1.78 GAA and .904 save percentage.
“We’ll have some tough decisions to make with our goalies,” said Sisti, who went with Ribble in both wins over Bemidji. “Desirae proved she can be a Division I goalie last year. I’d much rather have options when making decisions about who to play, and I like the depth we have.”
In front of those two, the Lakers sport a solid defense which allowed just 20.2 shots per game last season. A trio of big seniors, 5-7 assistant captains Elizabeth Betteridge and Randi Pilger, along with 5-6 Jennifer Jeffrey, will anchor the group.
Jeffrey’s 19 points were tops amongst team defensmen last year while Pilger topped the group with seven goals, tying for the team lead with five power-play tallies.
Sisti likes his blue-line corps but is quick to add that his Lakers play good team defense.
“It’s a combination of our defense corps and our forwards,” he said. “We take pride in our own end of the ice and believe in taking care of the defensive zone.
“We’ve got strong, mobile defensemen who make good decisions and forwards who do a good job of coming back and picking people up.”
Even with that defense-first mindset, Mercyhurst doesn’t lack for offense. Sophomore Sara McDonald topped the team with 18 goals and 30 points as a rookie and was a member of the U.S. National U-22 Team during the summer. Senior captain C.J. Ireland is the team’s all-time leading scorer with 107 points in 95 career games.
Sisti is also optimistic about his team’s outlook because of the work they did in the offseason, as well as what they accomplished a year ago.
“We’ve gotten stronger in the weight room,” he said. “As we get stronger, I think we’re more confident. Our seniors have worked hard. They’ve played a lot for us and they all hope to go out having their best season.”
After completing a four-game homestand with two wins against Connecticut, the Lakers are on the road for the first time this season, Oct. 19-20, when they face No. 7 St. Lawrence.