The end of the first half of the season is already upon us with a few teams wrapping up their first semester schedules this weekend. However a majority of the D-III teams will have the weekend off as the players finish up and prepare for their finals before they head home for winter break.
Out west though, four teams are readying themselves for important games on their respective schedules. Wis.-Superior and St. Thomas will square off in a home and home series between two titans from the NCHA and MIAC. In other NCHA action, Wis.-Eau-Claire will have a chance to push their name into consideration for the league title as they travel to Wis.-River Falls for a big Saturday showdown.
St. Thomasâ€™ Quest For The Perfect First Half
St. Thomas will come into this weekendâ€™s showdown with the Wis.-Superior Yellow Jackets with the added burden of sporting a perfect 8-0-0 record. The Tommies are one of just two teams, the other being new top-ranked Amherst (6-0-0) of the NESCAC, to make it to the holiday break with a perfect record in tact so far.
St. Thomas however will be facing a very stiff challenge in the defending NCHA and Peterâ€™s Cup champion Wis.-Superior who come into the weekend with a 5-3-1 record.
â€œWeâ€™re obviously hoping to pull off two wins,â€ said St. Thomas head coach Tom Palkowski. â€œWeâ€™re going to have to step our game up against the highest quality opponent weâ€™ve faced so far this year. Weâ€™re hoping to keep up the consistent play that weâ€™ve been fortunate to have so far this season.â€
Palkowski is weary of the challenge that Wis.-Superior and head coach Dan Laughlinâ€™s Yellow Jackets present even after their slow start.
â€œTraditionally Superior has been an extremely hard working team that likes to throw the puck into the corners and bang around a bit,â€ Palkowski said. â€œThis series is going to be a little bit more physical than what weâ€™ve seen so far. They came into the season with a mix of Division I transfers and are starting to get things rolling after a tough start.â€
Wis.-Superior and St. Thomas have played two common opponents so far this season with the Yellow Jackets splitting with Adrian and then dropping a 3-2 (ot) decision to St. Benedict. St. Thomas beat Adrian 3-2 in their first game of the season and swept St. Benedict by scores of 6-0 and 3-1 this past weekend.
â€œWeâ€™ve done an excellent job so far this season of putting the puck in the net on a consistent basis,â€ Palkowski said. â€œOur depth is pretty solid with scoring from all four lines and weâ€™ve been getting some great goaltending as well. This has also been one of our better defensive cores weâ€™ve had here.â€
Along with the outstanding play of Jackie Carroll (4-12-16), St. Thomas has received outstanding play from the freshmen trio of Jamie Tiede (6-6-12), Taylor Schluter (4-4-8), and Megan Parker (3-5-8).
â€œThe freshmen contributions we have gotten so far this year have been outstanding,â€ Palkowski said. â€œTiede has been playing alongside Carroll and has been putting the puck in consistently. Parker has run the power play effectively and has a great shot to help add some goal scoring power from the blue line for us.â€
St. Thomas has had 17 players on their roster score a goal already this season in just eight games. Palkowski firmly believes the across the board goal scoring is a direct reflection of the Tommies depth this season.
â€œGetting away from one of two players to rely on scoring goals is always a good thing,â€ Palkowski said. â€œWe have been getting consistent scoring from three lines that can bury the puck on any given night.â€
The ironic thing about what many feel has been a very easy schedule so far for St. Thomas is their next seven games are all against very solid opponents with three of the games being against teams ranked in the latest USCHO.com poll. After their series with Wis.-Superior, the Tommies will host eastern power Amherst and then two weeks later play their annual home and home with chief MIAC challenger Gustavus Adolphus. They will then finish up their brutal gauntlet stretch with a road trip to upstart Concordia-Moorhead.
â€œI told the girls that we can play very well in our next seven games and still come out on the short end,â€ Palkowski said. â€œWe need to come out and protect our home ice and then do what we can in the road games. These next seven games will be crucial to see where we stack up against the best.â€
Wis.-Eau Claire Looking To Make A Statement Against Wis.-River Falls
One of the least talked about and more surprising stories of the first half of the season has been Mike Collinsâ€™ Blugolds of Wis.-Eau Claire.
Coming into this weekendâ€™s showdown with Wis.-River Falls, the Blugolds have an impressive 6-2-2 record. However, Eau Claire did lose in their last outing to Lake Forest 4-3 in overtime in a game Collins believes the Blugolds let slip away and could end up haunting the team come the end of the season.
Unfortunately things donâ€™t get any easier for Eau Claire as Saturday theyâ€™ll face their toughest challenge of the season so far with a banged up roster.
â€œWeâ€™re dealing with a bunch of injuries right now,â€ Collins said. â€œEveryone deals with them but weâ€™re facing our toughest game of the season with a lot of distractions at hand with finals looming and Christmas break. Weâ€™re just trying to keep the girls focused on the task ahead.â€
Collins believes that team chemistry has been one of the biggest reasons why Eau Claire has been so successful to start off the 2008-2009 season.
â€œWeâ€™ve come together extremely well as a team,â€ Collins said. â€œWith a large freshmen class of 10 and just two seniors and one junior, weâ€™ve had to rely on a lot of youth to get the job done. Our goaltending has been solid and has been the backbone for us this season.â€
Kristin Faber has been the leader on offense for the Blugolds. The 5â€™8 sophomore from Austin, Minn. leads the team with six goals and eight assists for 14 points on the season.
â€œKristin [Faber] is an outstanding student athlete and quiet leader for us,â€ Collins said. â€œShe plays hard every shift and is so skilled that I am shocked sheâ€™s not playing Division I. She has tremendous size, strength, puck vision and skates well for a big kid.â€
Eau Claireâ€™s biggest claim to fame so far this season was their ability to do something that Gustavus Adolphus and Wis.-Superior couldnâ€™t do. The Blugolds took three points from Adrian when the Gusties and Yellow Jackets could only salvage splits with the Bulldogs.
â€œThat was huge for us,â€ Collins said. â€œLast year they beat us 4-2 twice in our barn. This year we traveled the long 12-hour bus ride and weâ€™re able to pull off a 1-0 win in an outstanding game played by both teams. The next night, we led 2-1 going into the third but gave up a goal and neither side could put home the game winner. I was very pleased that weekend.â€
Another surprising and intriguing fact about Eau Claireâ€™s season is that of their 10 games they have played so far this season, six of them have gone to overtime.
â€œWeâ€™ve let a few slip away and there have been some games that we should have won in regulation,â€ Collins said. â€œThe positive side is that we have continued to grow stronger by playing overtime so often.â€
Collins has the fortunate problem of having three solid goaltenders that can all play on a given night if asked to.
â€œMorgan [Pieper] has had the majority of the opportunities due to great efforts in practice and great game performances,â€ Collins said. â€œBut weâ€™ve also had outstanding play from Lea Jondal when she got her chance to play against Adrian. Danika Porter is the only returnee of the group and she has played well too when called upon.â€
Collins and the Blugolds will certainly have their hands full trying to contain River Fallsâ€™ high-flying offense. Theyâ€™ll also have to deal with a tough goaltender in Cassi Campbell between the pipes. Weâ€™ll see if the Blugolds can pass their next big test in their quest to put their name amongst the NCHA elite.
Marian University Adds Womenâ€™s Hockey Program
The Marian University Sabres will become the 48th Division III womenâ€™s hockey team when they enter the NCHA next year for the 2009-2010 season. The Sabres, located in Fond du Lac, WI will be the ninth member of the conference, which includes established western powers like Wis.-Stevens Point, Wis.-Superior, and Wis.-River Falls.
The addition of Marian leaves us just four schools short of the magic number of 52, which will add an eighth team to the NCAA Tournament.
You can read the full press release here:
One thing I found interesting was a quote from Marian University president, Dr. Josefina Castillo Baltodano. She said, â€œMarian University is excited by the decision of the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association to admit our new womenâ€™s hockey team into the league. The NCHA is the premier Division III league in the country and it is a privilege to become a part of it.â€
Hmmâ€¦anybody from the ECAC West care to beg to differ?
Regardless, Iâ€™m excited to see Marian add womenâ€™s hockey and hope that four more schools can follow suit sooner rather than later so we can finally get that eighth team for the NCAA Tournament. Iâ€™m still banking on the formation of the SUNYAC womenâ€™s conference soon. There are five SUNY schools playing right now and I donâ€™t see why Brockport, Geneseo, Fredonia, or Morrisville wouldnâ€™t look into jumping up to varsity. But thatâ€™s just me.