It’s the second straight season that Connecticut College has opened its schedule with four games against Amherst and Middlebury, but the results this year were completely different. It was difficult for the Camels to build momentum after their 0-3-1 start last season.
But when they matched up with the top two conference finishers earlier this season, they skated away with a 3-0-1 record. The Camels have a share of the lead in the NESCAC, a no. 8 ranking, and are primed to make this season different.
That won’t be easy in the NESCAC, where it’s difficult to get separation from the other teams. That’s something coach Kristin Steele loves about the league — and finds incredibly frustrating.
She pointed to the final weekend of the past few regular seasons, where other than that the top few teams were going to host playoff games, little was decided about the postseason until the final game ended.
That every point is hard-fought and necessary means that Steele said she has to do something most coaches will swear they don’t do — look ahead. In her team’s series with Middlebury last weekend — just the second of the young NESCAC season — Steele was already concerned with postseason tiebreakers.
After winning the first game 3-1, the Camels were down to Middlebury 3-1 in the second game. The Camels had pulled their goalie, leading to the Panthers’ third goal. That early in the season, Steele said she briefly considered pulling the goalie a second time, but with the matching scores, she knew she couldn’t risk Middlebury scoring another empty-net goal and getting an advantage with that extra goal scored.
But the need to fight for any and every advantage throughout the conference has taught the Camels an important lesson: any team can win on any given day. So even with a cadre of difficult and impressive programs holding strong to the top of the polls and a seemingly very steep hill to climb to be among them, Connecticut College knows it has a chance if it can take care of business and make it to the NCAA tournament.
To that end, Steele said she talks to the team about how nothing is guaranteed, regardless of who’s won what in the past. No games are promised to anyone.
“We talk about being better ourselves and the rest of it takes care of itself. We have these great opportunities and we need to make sure that we’re putting ourselves in the best spot to end in the best spot.”
It’s a mix of old and new for the Camels. They returned all-conference selections in goalie Katherine Chester and defenseman Julie Beattie, as well as conference Rookie of the Year Jordan Cross. They’ve also welcomed 10 freshman, five or six of whom Steele says are playing prominent roles for the team.
Despite the recognizable names on their roster, Steele said Connecticut College’s style of play isn’t about focusing on a couple of players. Instead, she builds a team for depth. The Camels run four lines at almost all times. They play fast, aggressive hockey and they force their opponents to skate with them. They are fit and fast and they push the pace and hope to wear other teams down. They force opponents out of their own game and they force mistakes. They look to not only create turnovers, but to anticipate those turnovers so they can turn them into an offensive benefit. They skate and they grind and they wear teams down.
It’s not a style of play you see a lot across Division III hockey, but Steele said she implemented it out of necessity to begin with. When she first arrived on campus, the program had struggled. They weren’t going to improve, recruit better, or beat anyone with the skill they had, so she strategized that the Camels could surprise teams by being aggressive and steal some wins.
The program improved, but Steele and her coaching staff stuck with the aggressive style. She looks for quick skaters, players with great fitness and the ability to anticipate what the other team might do. Instead of focusing on a few superstar players, Connecticut College’s style keeps every player on the roster feeling as though they are a part of the team. And it has the bonus of being able to fairly easily compensate for the injuries that inevitably pull players out of the lineup as the season progresses.
“You can put pressure on people maybe in a way they’re not used to,” said Steele. It’s just something they’re used to. It keeps a lot more people involved so people feel invested in the team. We’re trying to create turnovers and we’re working to be ready for that turnover to benefit us. We’re just going to be aggressive all over the ice.”
The players have responded to the idea that they carry depth throughout their bench and last season came up with the motto “As One.” This year, they’ve expanded upon it to include “Be Better.”
“Every day we talk about how we’re going to be better; every practice, every shift, every game we want to be better,” said Steele. “We have a lot of talent on our team and we’re just really excited about what this group could do.”