What comes after “Z”?

This week’s USCHO Division I Women’s Poll contains something noteworthy. No, not the fact that Cornell became the first team other than Wisconsin to receive a first-place vote, or even that the Top 10 consists of 11 teams. One of the teams locked in a tie at No. 10 with 12 points, Bemidji State, is making its first appearance in the Top 10.

“I think Bemidji State probably hasn’t gotten a lot of respect over the years,” Beavers coach Steve Sertich says. “I think people are noticing us a little bit more than they have. We’ve always played hard, but now we’re finding ways to win games.”

BSU’s most recent win, 2-1 on Saturday in Bemidji over a Minnesota squad that came into the game ranked No. 2, made the Gophers the latest in a long line of visitors to leave the Sanford Center with at least one loss. Since moving into its new home just over a year ago, Bemidji State has hosted 11 series, and only one opponent, title-bound Wisconsin last February, has left undefeated. Even the mighty Badgers needed overtime in the second game to accomplish their sweep.

“It’s like there’s something magical about this place,” says junior forward Emily Erickson of Coleraine, Minn. “We’re so fortunate to have it.”

It’s not entirely surprising that the Beavers haven’t attracted more recognition in the past, given that last season’s mark of 11-13-4 in conference games was their best record in 12 years of WCHA play.

“It’s a curse and a blessing to be in the WCHA,” Sertich says. “We’re proud to play against teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but it’s tough every weekend no matter who you play, where you play them. Our league is so tough top to bottom. St. Cloud even last week — they’re not that far away. It does wear you down, and it is hard. Hopefully, we can maintain the intensity that we’ve had so far into the season right now.”

As an example of how taxing their schedule can be, last season Bemidji State played 21 contests against teams ranked in the top 10 in the final poll. By comparison, Mercyhurst, the Beavers’ first Sanford Center victim, faced such opponents only four times.

Not that everyone minds the tough competition.

“I love it,” Erickson says. “You know you’re playing against the best people. You want to play against high-caliber people and when you do that, you can compare yourself to the best, and play against the best, and that’s what makes you better as a team.”

Currently sitting with an overall record of 6-2-2, BSU is off to its best start ever through 10 games. That the Beavers would get out of the blocks quickly was not obvious after graduating last season’s leading scorer, Erin Cody, who had a point on more than half of the team’s 70 goals last season and finished with 109 career points, second only to the 122 amassed by 2003 graduate and current Bemidji assistant coach Amber Fryklund.

“We knew coming in that it would be tough to replace a Cody,” Sertich says. “They don’t come around very often. It’s funny, we’re getting scoring by committee. We’ve got defensemen pitching in, we’ve got freshmen pitching in — sometimes they’re ugly goals, but we’re finding ways to score. A lot of it has to do with just the quantity of shots we’re getting on net, and we’re getting bounces every once in a while. The kids are doing a good job getting pucks on goal.”

One place Bemidji State is getting the job done is on the power play. In six games of WCHA action, it has converted on a gaudy 52.6 percent of its opportunities, and a Sadie Lundquist deflection just four seconds into the final power play proved decisive against the Gophers. Lundquist leads the team in points with 16, one more than Erickson, who won the faceoff leading to the Lundquist goal.

A critical component at the other end of the ice is Slovakian Olympic goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova, known as “Z” to her teammates. She saved 41 of 42 Minnesota shots to preserve the BSU upset. Sertich called her performance outstanding, but her time to shine in the Bemidji crease is waning, as both she and primary backup Alana McElhinney are seniors.

“She turns games around, and we’ll have to find a couple goalies that can do that,” he says.

To complicate matters for the BSU staff, top defensemen Montana Vichorek, Marlee Wheelhouse, and Kimberly Lieder will also be wrapping up their careers in the spring.

“It’s like that every year; there’s always holes to fill,” Sertich says. “That’ll be the next challenge for us.”

One improvement made since he took over the program in 2006 is an upgrade in the skating ability of the team, and Sertich credits his assistant coaches with finding those players.

“We didn’t have speed when I first came here,” he says. “We had hard-working kids, but it’s a game of speed. And now, top to bottom, we can skate with a team like [Minnesota]. It’s an absolute necessity to have players who can get up and down the rink.”

Erickson, one of those flying up and down the ice, is unfazed by the challenges that loom next season without Tomcikova in net, just as she welcomes those that remain in 2011-12.

“Each year is different, and the chemistry on a team is different from year to year,” Erickson says. “Each person knows they have to step it up another notch. Beaver hockey is all about that. Coach addresses that. Our program is all about working hard, and we’ll make that happen next year when it comes.”


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