Year Of Redemption

For almost 20 seasons the College of St. Scholastica’s hockey program had been mired in a state of mediocrity. Overshadowed by cross-river rival and D-III powerhouse Wisconsin-Superior, the small Duluth, Minn., college was nothing but an NCHA also-ran.

My, how one year can make a difference.

While taking over a program that had posted a 31-97-6 record over the previous five seasons might be considered anything other than a coach’s paradise, St. Scholastica alum Mark Wick had few reservations about turning around the program at his alma mater.

“I wasn’t hesitant about it at all. This is a college with a great facility, great academics, and an administration that was behind hiring a full-time assistant coach,” Wick said.

In only his second season as the head coach at St. Scholastica, Wick has proven to be a breath of fresh air for the Saints. On the strength of a three-point conference weekend, St. Scholastica finds itself tied for third place (5-4-1) in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) while owning an overall record of 14-6-1. With only four regular-season games to play, it will mark the first time the Saints have had a winning season since they finished 18-11-2 in 1986-87.

The Saints are also raising eyebrows on the national scene, as they are ranked ninth in the current D-III poll — their highest ranking ever.

A former UW-Superior assistant coach himself, Wick turned to familiar ground when looking to fill out his staff and brought another former Superior assistant on board in coach Randy Barker.

Known for his recruiting prowess, Barker is already paying dividends as the Saints’ freshman class has been nothing short of spectacular. Thirteen freshmen fill out the St. Scholastica roster and to date have been responsible for 69% of the Saints scoring.

“Randy has been fantastic. I’d go so far as to say he’s the best recruiter out there,” Wick said. “With the administration supporting a full-time assistant, we were able to attend more games and make more phone calls than ever before.”

Recruiting top talent can be difficult for a program with St. Scholastica’s historical track record, but Wick suggested that Barker played a huge role in bridging that gap.

“It can be very difficult for us to get kids from Minnesota. They almost know us too well. So we had to recruit from certain other areas, and that was something Randy was able to do.”

Offensively, the tandem’s inaugural recruiting class is led by freshman forwards A.J. Tucker (7-16–23), Joey Martini (15-7–22) and Trevor Geiger (11-9–20). With that trio leading the way, the top five, and nine out of the top 13 scorers for the Saints are players in their first collegiate seasons.

Underclassmen also anchor the Saints defense, with freshman goaltender Steve Bounds garnering a majority of the action in net. So far this season, Bounds has performed admirably, compiling a 9-4-1 record with a 2.48 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. Sophomore Tyler Johnson has been up to task as well, posting a 5-2 record in a complementary role.

Wick was quick to praise his freshman class.

“Coming in they knew this was expected of them. Every single one of these guys played Junior A last season. We knew they had a lot of ability and potential, and that they were high-quality players. If you had told us this would have been our freshman class, I wouldn’t have believed it. These were guys we could not turn away.”

According to Wick, however, the freshmen are not the only factor contributing to the Saints’ turnaround.

“It’s not only the freshmen. They have been great, but upperclassmen like Curtis Markewich and Dustin Sieben have played a major role,” Wick said. “Coming in they understood that they might not play some of the roles they had in the past as far as special teams and such, but they are doing all the little things right, and their leadership has been fantastic. Their leadership and influence on the young guys has been very important.”

Playing in the NCHA, arguably one of the toughest leagues in the nation, many would consider a rapid turnaround to be asking a bit much, but that was not something that Wick and Barker were concerned with.

Wick elaborated, “A lot of times, you take a job and people figure it’ll take three or four years. Randy and I aren’t that patient.”

After defeating UW-Eau Claire on December 2, it was clear this attitude was resonating with the team. The win ran the Saints’ record to 6-3, one more victory than they attained all of last season.

It was a victory a month later, however, that could prove to be a major steppingstone for the program. On January 13, the Saints defeated perennial Western power St. John’s by a score of 3-1. According to Wick, it wasn’t only the win that was significant, but the manner in which the Saints earned it.

“Absolutely, it was a big win for us. It gave our guys a lot of confidence to know that we can play with and beat the cream of the crop. We also came from behind in that game, which was something we had not been able to do. To have done it against a team like St. John’s was big.”

Another mark of progress that Wick was quick to point to occurred a little over a week later when the Saints traveled to Lake Forest and defeated the Foresters 5-3.

“Lake Forest is an extremely difficult place to get a win,” Wick said. “Everything about it, it’s a very difficult environment. I think that is the toughest road trip in the league (Lake Forest and St. Norbert), and to come out of that weekend with two points was very important for us.”

St. Scholastica’s season has not only been defined by a few big wins, however. The Saints have been a model of consistency throughout, and have posted a stellar 11-3-1 record in their previous 15 games. Now in the thick of the conference race and riding a hot streak, the Saints play host to two NCHA rivals this weekend in Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stout.

Wick made it clear, though, that his team is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s hard. The competitiveness of this league keeps getting better and better. Take a look at any of the NCHA games this weekend. Who are the favorites? It’s very difficult to tell. Anybody can beat anybody.”

As St. Scholastica continues its most successful season in almost 20 years, many are wondering exactly how far the Saints have the potential to go this season — or in future seasons, but Wick prefers to take it one step at a time.

“Heading into this year I thought we were a better team than we were last season, and right now I think we’re a better team than we were in late December or early January,” Wick said. “But we can’t control what the other teams do, only what we do. Randy and I have a philosophy and it’s that we need to just worry about ourselves, and we’ll see what happens.”

One thing can be assured, however. With newfound leadership behind the bench and an outstanding crop of young talent, St. Scholastica is certainly a team on the rise.

How far will they rise? Only time will tell.