Last weekend, the St. Scholastica Saints opened up their second season as a varsity program with a pair of 4-3 road victories at Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Leading the way for St. Scholastica were Nina and Monika Waidacher, sisters from Arosa, Switzerland.
Monika is a sophomore forward and was a member of the Saints’ inaugural squad last season that went 7-16-2. She has been a member of Switzerland National Team since 2009, and played for her country in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Nina joined Monika this year as a freshman after playing and serving as an assistant captain for the Swiss U-18 National Team the last two years. She has already had a major impact, leading the Saints in scoring with two goals and four assists for six points. Her efforts led to her becoming the first CSS player in program history to be named the NCHA Player of the Week.
Judging from the first weekend’s results, St. Scholastica coach Jackie MacMillan may have struck gold by pairing the Waidacher sisters together with sophomore team captain Michelle Fischer on the Saints’s top line.
“Putting our captain Michelle Fischer with the two of them has been a nice fit so far,” MacMillan said. “They have clicked since day one, and they complement each other really well on the ice. It was a good weekend for us being able to come out with two wins on the road against a top-four team in our league last year.”
Monika has already surpassed her point total from last year with one goal and four assists for five points after scoring just three goals all of last season. Fischer has already matched her total from last year with two goals and three assists.
“We had Monika last year and for her, I think it was a big adjustment coming over here from Switzerland and adjusting to playing in the NCHA as opposed to the European style of women’s hockey, where you have a little more time to make decisions,” MacMillan said. “I think she was helpful in being able to prepare her younger sister for that. I knew right away when Nina decided to come here I was going to put them together on the same line, just because they know how to play with each other.”
The story on the Waidacher sisters ending up at St. Scholastica dates back to MacMillan getting her first job out of college as a teacher and coach at the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary’s school in Minnesota. MacMillan got to know ex-NHL coach and current Western Michigan men’s hockey coach Andy Murray through having his son, Jordy, in her eighth grade English class.
Jordy went on to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin, and now plays professional hockey in Switzerland along with his two other siblings, Sarah (Minnesota-Duluth) and Brady (North Dakota).
“I just happened to be at one of the UMD games when Sarah was a senior and I got talking with Andy about my new program at CSS,” MacMillan said. “He called me about a month later saying he had close friends in Switzerland with a daughter that was really interested in coming to the U.S. and playing college hockey.
“Her and her dad, Ludwig, came over for a visit and they ended up liking the campus and they thought it would be a good academic fit because she would need a little more one-on-one attention, because her English wasn’t strong yet.”
Monika showed up in the fall of 2010 and enjoyed her first year at CSS, and then MacMillan said she got an e-mail from Ludwig in January saying he had another daughter who was graduating that year and was wondering if she would be interested in her as well.
“I knew Nina was a good hockey player, so I said yeah absolutely,” MacMillan said. “Nina and Ludwig came over to watch a game at the end of the season and visit Monika. Nina ended up enjoying her visit too, and wanted to come play hockey on the same team with her sister again.”
MacMillan said she thinks part of the early success may be attributed to a little friendly, competitive sibling rivalry between Nina and Monika.
“I think Monika was really excited about Nina coming here,” MacMillan said. “But, I think it also has pushed her to the next level, because she doesn’t want to be shown up by her younger sister.”
Outside of the scoring surge from its top line, St. Scholastica has also made a couple of other changes that have helped point the program in the direction MacMillan wants it to go in the future.
First off, the roster size has been cut from 28 down to 20 players this season.
“Last year, we had to recruit a bunch of players quickly, since we were starting a new program from scratch,” MacMillan said. “We spent a lot of time and energy on the extra six players that never dressed, so we decided to go with the smaller roster this season.”
MacMillan said she drew inspiration for the smaller roster from University of Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller.
“Every year they have won the national championship, their roster has been small at 20 or under,” she said. “I think there is something to be said for that. It makes me a little nervous only carrying 20 if injuries come up, but we’ve been a very close team so far this year with our smaller numbers, and I think it’s played a factor in our early success.”
Although St. Scholastica’s 7-16-2 record from a year ago might not seem the best at first glance, consider the fact the Saints lost 10 of those 16 games by one goal and it sounds a whole lot better for a first-year program playing in one of the most competitive, if not the most competitive, leagues in Division III.
“We weren’t doing the little things we needed to win the close games last year,” MacMillan said. “We were heavily relying on one senior last year for leadership, and that was a lot to handle for a young team. Everybody was brand new to the program, and I was a new coach coaching 28 kids I had coached before, rather than just integrating a freshmen class into the type of program I wanted to establish here.”
Last weekend’s road sweep over Wis.-Eau Claire, which finished fourth in the NCHA last year, was certainly a promising start to the 2011-12 campaign, but the Saints will face possibly the sternest test they’ll face all season this weekend with a pair of home games against defending NCHA regular season champion Wis.-River Falls.
“Playing the top team in our league will be a good test for us and a gauge for where we’re at right now,” MacMillan said. “It will give us an idea of where we need to be at toward the end of the season if we want to be a contender. With us winning two games this weekend against Eau-Claire I think maybe people realize we can play and could be a much different team this year.”