The sophomore slump is a phrase that means nothing to the University of New Hampshire hockey team.
Since 2002-03, second-year players have led the team in points and placed among the highest in the nation every season.
This season, sophomore Sam Faber is holding up her end. Entering the weekend games, Faber has 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) and leads the team in this category. She had another two points in UNH’s 6-2 win over Connecticut on Saturday.
“Your freshman year is the time to get all the jitters out,” said Faber. “Your sophomore year, you’re also used to playing at this level,” the forward from Mt. Sinai, N.Y. continued. “You’re a lot calmer out there.”
As is the entire team. Last year a 5-4 loss to Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinal left many players disappointed. Complacency may have been partly the cause.
“Last year we had to find new challenges to keep us in check,” said junior All-American defenseman Martine Garland. “We want to get back to that game and redo it.” Garland said she felt on the bench that it was going to be a problematic game. “I always have a feel for games and I had a feeling during that game we weren’t mentally there,” she said.
“We know what we want. That [Frozen Four] game was so back and forth, we gave it our all, but it wasn’t enough,” said Jennifer Hitchcock, who leads the team in goals with 15 and is second overall in points (21).
Saturday’s win put the Wildcats (16-2-3, 7-1-0), ranked second in the nation, within a point of UConn (11-8-1, 7-3-1) for first in the Hockey East standings with three games in hand. The victory also gave senior goalie Melissa Bourdon 75 for her career — a new school record.
Faber, Garland and Hitchcock all feel this is a special year, one that is being driven by a solid freshman class, by a taste of losing in the Frozen Four and by a closeness on and off the ice, unique in their collegiate experience.
“There are a lot more people on the same page,” said Hitchcock. “Last year we felt was special but it was our first year transitioning into top level play. We got a taste. This year is a different story.”
Garland is on a more special mission since she has a year to make up. Her sophomore year (2004-05) in a game against Connecticut, she was skating backward on a power play, fell awkwardly and broke her ankle. Since it was only her fourth game, she could redshirt so this season she’s a fourth year junior.
“I had come into that year with a lot of high hopes,” she said. Initially she took the injury pretty well, but she struggled after her surgery. “It was tough to watch the team play and I could only be on the bench supporting them,” she said.
“Since I wasn’t doing anything on the ice, I was obsessed with going on the workout bike,” she said. Towards the end of February after she had been cleared to skate, she ventured out on the ice for the first time when no one else was around. “It was foreign to me,” she said. “I felt like I had never skated before.” She had lost 15 pounds during the ordeal which weakened her.
She skated around the rink and then went off. “It took a while to get my confidence back” she said. But practicing the last two weeks of the season helped, and last year she returned with a vengeance, finishing the season as the top scoring defenseman in the country, averaging 1.09 points a game.
“I really developed a solid work ethic when I was in training,” she said. “When you have nothing else to do, you go on the bike. It also helped me to be on the bench because I got to see a lot of people in ways that I wouldn’t have if I had been on the outside.”
UNH’s remaining schedule is not as challenging as the front end, although a Jan 28 game at Dartmouth looms large because the Wildcats tied them at home. The season’s third meeting against BC, who beat UNH 7-2 earlier this season, also looms large.
“We played with a lot of different players in the early games to see what would develop,” said UNH coach Brian McCloskey. “If we continue to win the majority of our games we’ll be in the top eight regardless of the outcome of the tournament,” he said, concerning NCAA tournament selection. The Hockey East Championship is in Durham this year – previously they had always been in Boston – and that may help UNH secure the automatic bid.
“We can’t be a one team league,” he said, and that’s been improving. “But we need a couple of other teams to be in the top 10. It can’t just be us and BC.”
McCloskey likes his team’s chances this season because it has two important ingredients: depth and balance. “The key is really the supporting players,” he said.
He’s also well aware of his sophomore streak and agrees it’s an indication that the recruiting classes are getting stronger. Next year’s class is the best he’s recruited in his five years, he said.
“Good kids want to play with good kids,” he said.