Expectations are always high at St. Thomas. It comes with the territory of being one of the top Division III programs in college hockey.
The Tommies tallied their 30th consecutive winning season a year ago, winning the regular season crown in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and advancing to the NCAA tournament, where they lost to eventual national champion St. Norbert.
The Tommies are favored to win the conference again, and while they certainly have the talent to make it happen, third-year head coach Jeff Boeser is smart enough to know that games are never won on paper.
“No team has ever won a game on paper,” Boeser said. “We play in a league that is good from top to bottom, and there are no easy games on our schedule. Everyone wants to knock us off, and we know we have to be ready to play our best every night.”
The potential for the Tommies to be at their best is evident. A total of 19 players are back, including senior forward Riley Horgan, the leading scorer in the conference last year. Horgan scored five goals and dished out 27 assists last year. He has racked up 64 points in his career.
Robbie Vannelli, a senior defenseman and a captain, scored nine goals and dished out nine assists last season, and will play a pivotal role in the success of St. Thomas.
Goalie Drew Fielding is among the key players as well after allowing 2.08 goals per game and fashioning a .917 save percentage as a freshman.
“We are excited about the number of returning players we have and about the recruits we are bringing in,” Boeser said. “We have done a good job in practice, and we know that if you practice hard, it usually carries over to games.”
The depth of the Tommies stands out as well. Of the 19 players that are back, eight earned all-conference honors last season.
“We have a lot more depth this year,” Boeser said. “It’s going to make us a better team. It’s a good problem to have, and we may change lineups throughout the year based on who is playing well. If everyone plays well, we will find a way to get those guys playing time.”
The fact that St. Thomas does have depth has made practices interesting.
“The practices have been very competitive because they know that anyone can take their spot,” Boeser said. “Everyone is competing for playing time, and that competition in practice will help us get ready for every game we play.”
Not only will depth be a key to success for the Tommies, but their defense is expected to be one of their biggest strengths.
“Our goaltending should be very good, and you need consistent play in that area to win games,” Boeser said. “I feel like we should be very good defensively and will be able to make good decisions out there. Hockey games are often lost on mistakes by the defense, and we want to make sure we keep those mistakes down as much as possible.”
As good as the Tommies were last year, one thing still bothers them: St. Thomas didn’t win the conference tournament, falling 4-3 to St. Olaf in the semifinal round.
The two teams actually played in the MIAC Showcase this past weekend and skated to a 2-2 tie. St. Thomas earned a win as well in the showcase, beating Augsburg 3-0.
But back to the 2012 postseason for a moment. The fact that St. Thomas didn’t win the conference tourney, and the fact that it didn’t go deep into the NCAA tournament, are two things that will be in the back of the players’ minds and serve as motivation.
“We have a very determined group of players,” Boeser said. “Our players feel like they have some unfinished business to take care of because of the way things ended last year. They have been working very hard and they come ready to go every day. As long as they maintain that approach and play hard in games, we will have a chance to be successful.”