So Much For First Impressions

Sonny Watrous’s initial foray into Hockey East was indeed a baptism by fire.

A year ago, the freshman and her Providence College teammates were slogging their way to a less than auspicious beginning to the 2003-2004 campaign. Preseason ballots picking them for the Frozen Four be damned, the Friars made prognosticators wince by getting off to a 7-9-2 start.

Mirroring her team’s performance, Watrous, the former defenseman-turned forward, was slow out of the gate as well, failing to garner a goal through the team’s first 15 games.

Coaches aren’t going to come to New Mexico to look for players. I was playing on guys teams and I wasn’t going to get seen that way so I had to go and put myself out there.

— Watrous on choosing to attend NAHA Prep in Vermont miles from her home

Pressed into a corner by the obvious lack of production, Providence coach Bob Deraney’s decision to employ an aggressive 3-2 forechecking scheme that quickly hit the mark. As such, the Friars found some level of redemption by posting 14 wins over their final 18 games.

More importantly, the Friars, the eventual Hockey East champions proved that hackneyed cliches don’t often follow script in college hockey. You can get a second chance to make a first impression. And Watrous’s impression was strikingly vivid. Despite missing nearly six weeks of ice time with a holiday-break knee injury, the personable Watrous played in 34 games for the Friars, knocking home 16 goals and tallying 27 total points. Her efforts were rewarded with her selection as Hockey East Rookie of the Year.

“We had high expectations put on us with the preseason rankings,” said Watrous with her trademark infectious smile. “As the season went on we started to find out what worked. With the type of players that we had, we had so many offensive players that [two forecheckers] wasn’t doing us justice to hold everybody back and play more defense. We needed to be going to the net and I think that once Coach Deraney realized that and made the change, that’s when things started to turn around.”

Watrous, a 5-8 forward arrived in Providence for her freshman year via the prestigious North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vermont. While in the Green Mountain State, the Albuquerque, New Mexico native proved proficient at finding the net, scoring 70 goals in 144 contests over three seasons. U.S. national team member Julianne Vasichek, the Minnesota-Duluth All-American is a graduate of the NAHA program, as is Nicole Goguen of the Canadian U-22 squad and UNH. The NAHA experience prepared Watrous for the rigors of Hockey East.

“It’s really cool,” said Watrous who is already ahead of her goal scoring pace of a year ago. “You leave your high school and you go out there from October to March and you bring your work from home. We played about 40 games during the four months, which is awesome because you get seen. Coaches aren’t going to come to New Mexico to look for players. I was playing on guys teams and I wasn’t going to get seen that way so I had to go and put myself out there. It was a good situation because I could really concentrate on my school work while playing.”

Back in Rhode Island, Watrous, a former figure skater and runner who turned to hockey in the seventh grade, faced a few hurdles of her own. The first was finding a comfort zone on a front line with the prolific duo of forwards Rush Zimmerman and Darlene Stephenson. “Personally it was very hard for me to adapt to,” Watrous said of the previously employed 2-3 scheme. “Once I got switched up to forward, it started to work out a little bit better.”

As the New Year approached, a sprained MCL put Watrous’ development on hold. Fortunately, the vacation break provided built-in recovery time. “It was nice that I didn’t have to miss many games, but it was about the time when I was starting to put everything together, so I saw it as a minor setback,” she said. “As far as the timing of the injury, I guess it couldn’t have been better.”

That notion of that injury weighted on Watrous as the 2004-05 season approached and the weight room was her proverbial home away from home.”I focused on building strength during the summer, so hopefully I can be healthy throughout the season,” said Watrous simply. Apparently, Watrous’s eagerness to avoid a repeat of last season’s start is catching on rapidly in the Friar locker room. Through six games, the Friars top line of Zimmerman (4-5-9), Watrous (5-5-10) and junior Karen Thatcher (5-6-11) have accounted for 14 of Providence’s 19 goals. The trio has registered 97 shots on opposing goaltenders.

For Watrous, the reasons for the team’s better start (3-2-1) whittle down to a sense of familiarity. “This is my second season playing with Rush and we really feed off of each other. Karen brings a lot of speed to our line as well, and we’ve been able to move the puck quicker,” she said.

Providence’s senior core, led by Zimmerman, forwards Hilary Greaves (8-8-16), Ashley Payton (13-13-26) and defenseman Danielle Bourgette (2-12-14) is interspersed with six freshmen. “They have a huge role on the team,” Watrous said of the newcomers. “In a lot of ways we have a really young and developing team. It’s early in the season and we’re still working out the kinks.” But Watrous added that the big finish in the second half of last season has been a tangible source of incentive, “We looked at last season and realized that we had a rocky start and we finished off by losing just four games,” she said. “Looking back, we know we have to get a good start and keep it going.”

As for her own proficiency, Watrous, who admitted that she doesn’t pattern her game on any particular player, offered, “I’m seeing how things develop on the ice and I’d say that I’m able to read and react better.”

As Watrous’s numbers continue to spike upward, it’s certain another sports superstition-that of the sophomore jinx, will be laid to rest. The Friars wouldn’t have it any other way.