This Week in D-I Women’s Hockey: Nov. 15, 2007

Road sweet home

They say you can’t go home again, but Hilary Knight begs to differ.

The sensational Wisconsin freshman forward will return to her native New Hampshire with the rest of the No. 1-ranked Badgers for a two-game weekend showdown with No. 3 UNH.

“I’m very excited,” said Knight, who was bred in the shadow of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., less than two hours from Durham. “My parents and the rest of my family will be there, either driving up or flying in. I don’t get to see them all very often.”

What they’ll see is a Badger squad — the NCAA’s two-time defending champions — that has had two weeks to prepare for UNH, which held the No. 1 spot last week before being upset at home by unranked Princeton.

According to Knight, Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson has been keeping his charges trained on their own business in practice, and not the Wildcats.

“We’re not really focused on them,” said Knight. “We’re more focused on ourselves. Getting everyone back together [after two weeks off] and on the same page. We’ve been running drills, and getting our lines [going] at a high intensity. UNH hasn’t seen us play, and we haven’t seen them. [They] should be pretty good games, I hope.”

Not surprisingly, sentiment emanating from the Whittemore Center is much the same.

“We’re all really excited,” said UNH senior captain Martine Garland. “Whenever we play a Top-10 team, it’s a big deal for us. We love playing our non-conference schedule, because it’s just new faces. So far, we’re just trying to get our systems down, and trying to get ourselves as ready as possible for them, because we know they’re going to be a strong team.”

Garland said that the Wildcats’ success is tethered to how well they can sweat the small stuff.

“It’s all going to be about executing,” she said. “We have to bring our best two games of the season out, on Saturday and Sunday. It’s not going to be so much about who has who, or what stars anybody has. It’s going to be about everybody coming together as a team. Whichever team does that the best is going to come out on top.”

For her part, Knight has made a big impact on a powerful Badger attack (fourth-most prolific in the nation) that also features gifted scorers such as senior Jinelle Zaugg, freshman Mallory Deluce, and sophomore Megan Duggan.

Knight has racked up 14 points (four goals, 10 assists), tying her with Zaugg for the team lead, which also leads the country among rookie scorers.

All of which begs the question, how did the two in-state schools miss out on the 5’11” power forward?

“I guess they weren’t the right fit,” she said. “I came out to Wisconsin, I got that feeling, and absolutely loved it.”

Cruising at a high-water mark

Quick! Which D-I program is playing the best hockey in the school’s history?

If your answer was Robert Morris, it would be the correct one.

True, the Colonials are just three years old, and have yet to hit the .500 mark in this season, or any other.

But that doesn’t take a bit of shine off their current four-game win streak, the longest in team history (over NCAA opponents).

That includes a pair of wins over the D-I indies from Sacred Heart, plus a pair of 3-2 wins at Maine, which is the alma mater of RMC assistant coach Raffi Wolf.

“It was my first time back,” Wolf said. “It felt a little weird.”

Weird, but good too, no doubt.

The Colonials head into their weekend trip to Bemidji State sitting at 5-6-1 (0-2-0 CHA), which for them is heady stuff.

“We just try to take it period by period,” said second year coach Nate Handrahan, “and shift by shift. With a young team, we have to make sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We have to live in the present. Not the past, and certainly not the future.”

Certainly the Colonials hope that the future holds more satisfaction than the past.

But if you ask junior co-captain Morgan Beikirch, she’ll tell you that the growing pains suffered by the nascent program are something worth appreciating.

“It’s been hard,” said Beikirch, a forward from Livonia, N.Y. “You can’t really lie about that. You have to be honest. It’s hard starting off as a new program. But at the same time, that’s the special part about it. You’re helping develop a program. Hopefully, we’ll come back in five or 10 years, and see that it’s developed even further. Just knowing that you were part of the inaugural team is special. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here.”

The Colonials say the measure their gains modestly.

For instance, last season, Wisconsin roared into the Steel City and blew RMC off the Island Sports Center ice with 10-0 and 5-0 routs.

This year, the Colonials open the season with a respectable 3-0 loss to this week’s No. 2, Mercyhurst, then held Wisconsin to within 3-0 and 3-1 counts, all in the space of four days.

“Obviously, your going to have strong teams on your schedule,” said Beikirch, “and those teams are a step above the rest. But to be honest, I’d rather play those games every weekend. Because that’s what’s going to get us to grow. I think that actually helped us, having those at the beginning of the year. Even though we lost, to play that well gave us confidence.”