Solid foundation enables Vermont to build on success

Taylor Willard of Vermont. Vermont Catamounts at Gutterson Field House on Saturday afternoon October 22, 2016 in Burlington, Vermont. (Brian Jenkins)
Taylor Willard of Vermont. Vermont Catamounts at Gutterson Field House on Saturday afternoon October 22, 2016 in Burlington, Vermont. (Brian Jenkins)

Taking over a program is a lot like building a house, said Vermont coach Jim Plumer. Not only is it a long, detailed process, it takes a lot of people to accomplish. And it has to be done in stages.

Five years into his tenure with the Catamounts, Plumer has learned a lot about his abilities as an architect, and he credits his senior class with being the solid foundation upon which the rest of the team is built. Not only have they laid the groundwork for this successful season, but they themselves are excelling. Multiple seniors are having career years, surpassing their previous numbers with weeks to go in the season.

Just like Plumer’s house analogy, this season’s Catamounts are built from the bottom up. They’ve been rotating between goalies Melissa Black and Madison Litchfield and Plumer says he considers them both number one goalies. It’s not a situation he foresaw when the season started, but it’s a good problem to have.

Goaltending has not been a hallmark of Vermont hockey in years past, something Plumer said happened for a variety of reasons. Having the solid presence of not one but two goalies has given the rest of the team the freedom to play more loosely up front.

Combine that with a couple of early results and the Catamounts found one of the keys that had been missing for them previously — confidence.

“You can’t buy confidence at the store; it would make things so much easier if you could,” Plumer said. So you have to have some success to get confidence. … The Northeastern series was probably a turning point for us.”

Though they were close games that could have gone in either team’s favor, Vermont won twice in overtime and those wins seemed to be a catalyst for the players to understand that the work they’d been putting in has paid off.

“That makes it easier to go into the next series that matters knowing (we’d already had success),” said Plumer.

Vermont’s goalie situation is really just a microcosm of what’s happened across the whole team. Litchfield had a career save percentage of .893 heading into this season. Now she’s one of the seniors having a career year and she’s sitting fifth in the country saving at a .945 clip.

Litchfield and Black compete, but they also support each other. They push each other to be better, and that competition brings out the best in both of them. The way the goalies have embraced the competition while also improving has been an example for the whole team.

Plumer said creating a culture of honest, respectful competition is something he’s wanted to foster from the beginning, but that the players have embraced it makes it all that more gratifying.

The Catamounts work on four tenets, and Plumer was honest in admitting that it took awhile to get the team to fully buy in. Winning has certainly helped.

“I think that when people enjoy their experience, they’re more inclined to want to continue to enjoy it,” said Plumer.

Not only does that apply to the current squad, but it’s an idea future Catamount teams will have to embrace in order to ensure that the advances made by this team aren’t lost when the seniors graduate.

For now, they focus on their core values. They are there to play — to have fun and remember they’re playing a game, while also working hard. They compete. They push each other to bring out the best in each other and compete among themselves so they’re always prepared to compete with their opponents. They finish, in everything, from the smallest execution to the most important game, and they grow. They learn from their successes and the teaching moments.

That final one is incredibly important to Plumer as a coach, and one he has taken to heart for himself.

A big lesson he’s learned is how to adapt his strategies and coaching philosophies to the strengths of the players on his team. It’s not always easy for a coach to revamp their process, but when he’s working to build confidence with wins and competition, he can’t beat that down by only focusing on what the team might not be good at. So he works to play to his individual player’s strengths and looks to put them in places where they can succeed even more.

One place that’s paid off is on offense with senior Bridget Baker. In years past, she’d been a stalwart on the third line, playing a ton of minutes and anchoring a line that often got matched against the opponent’s top line. She’d been incredibly solid and the Catamounts had counted on her in that role, but she’d never been paired with top forwards. Now she’s seeing time with talented wingers and she’s already scored more goals than she has in any other season in her career.

In tune with trying to build confidence, Vermont not only tries not to focus on mistakes — Plumer went so far as to say he tries not to use the word failures — but also examine how and why they had success. Not only does it make them better players, but it keeps the players invested in their own growth.

When Plumer focuses on finding and capitalizing on his players’ best attributes, he forces them to take their own account of what they bring to the team and what role they play. Going back to his house analogy, they can’t all be plumbers. To build a successful, long-standing house, Plumer said, they need plumbers and carpenters, painters and electricians. Every player on the roster has a role and they’ve embraced the idea that the house they’re building might not be finished by the time they graduate, but the reason the house will stand for a long time is because they put their unique talents together to create it.

“We’re trying not to get too far ahead of us,” said Plumer. “You can’t put the roof on the house until you’ve built the second floor. And you can’t put the first floor on until you build the foundation. I think we really tried to approach this year with the idea that we’re going to do things that are going to give us success in the long run.”