Mark Johnson has been coaching the Wisconsin women’s hockey team for 14 years. The team that takes the ice each week for the Badgers this season is by far the youngest squad he’s ever had. Eight freshman and a transfer goaltender dressed for the Badgers in their exhibition again South Korea to open the season. The number was down to six freshman alongside goalie Kristen Campbell for their ninth and 10th games last weekend, but the point is still made: 16 of 23 players are underclassmen, and there’s nothing but room to grow and learn for these Badgers.
Wisconsin is without its top four scorers from last season, lost 45 percent of the scoring to graduation or the Olympics, and graduated Patty Kazmaier Award winner goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens.
Yet somehow the Badgers have started the season 10-0-0. Campbell has recorded the best start to a career of any Wisconsin goalie in program history. They are averaging 3.80 goals per game on offense and are allowing just 0.90 goals per game on defense.
Sophomore Abby Roque, the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Year, is tied for first in the country with 14 points and is second in the land with 10 assists. Transfer Claudia Kepler, a team captain, is second in the country with eight goals.
Against a lot of odds, the Badgers, who lost the national title game to Clarkson last season, are back on top and have a bit of a chip on their shoulder, admits Roque.
“We came into the season to have some redemption, but start fresh,” said Kepler.
The Badgers had exited the Frozen Four in the semifinal round after losing to Minnesota for three straight years before finally breaking through to the championship game by beating Boston College last season. Then Wisconsin’s top-ranked offense stalled, and they couldn’t score a single goal in the title match.
It wasn’t the way anyone imagined the Badgers would exit the season, but Roque said getting a taste of that atmosphere and what winning might look like only made her hungrier to get there again.
The path to the Frozen Four looks different this season, and how the Badgers have prepared has altered as well.
With a roster half-filled with upperclassmen last season, Roque said she and the rest of her class came in and were slotted among the experienced players, where they learned from doing and on the fly.
This season, everyone has had to adjust — the pace has slowed a bit as the rookies get acclimated — and the focus in practice is much more broadly on systems and style of play. Focusing on the small details is how Kepler thinks the team will succeed.
“I think the most important thing for us is just to keep it simple,” said Kepler. “Our team has been working on doing little things in practice, getting the puck deep. Just doing the little things that can make the big difference on the ice.”
Roque’s importance to the Badgers’ early success cannot be understated. A third-line center last season, she’s been elevated to the top line and has risen to the challenge. She’s taken a leadership role as a sophomore, something multiple underclassmen had to do in order to provide each new player with a “mentor” on the team, something the Badgers do with every incoming class.
She’s been learning on the fly as she figures out her new and more prominent role in the offense, including what it means to be matched up against opponents’ top lines.
“This year is a different kind of role for me,” she said. “Learning how to play against the best of the other team — matching lines — you have to adjust to that. Last year by the end of the year I was getting more comfortable on the ice playing at this level. Carrying that over to this year has really helped me just come into the season with some speed and knowing what to do.”
Though they started the season undefeated, the Badgers are heading into a five-week stretch where nine of 10 games are against nationally ranked opponents. It’s a brutal part of their schedule that’s unlikely to leave them or their record unblemished.
In each of their last two series, Wisconsin has mounted come-from-behind wins, something that only helps their confidence heading into the next few weeks. They know that if they fall behind, they are still in the game and have the ability to make in-game adjustments.
No matter what their record is on December 2, Roque said the biggest thing this young team has to remember is to keep their heads up.
“Playing these teams now will really help us in the long run so by the end of the year we’re prepared for anything that comes at us in the playoffs,” she said.
Despite an increased role, the Badgers are by no means depending on Roque to carry the weight. Though Wisconsin had scoring depth last season, the focus was on Annie Pankowski, Emily Clark, and the top two lines. With the current roster, there are opportunities for everyone on the roster to contribute; so far, they have. There are just three skaters that have yet to tally a point for the Badgers.
“I’m just really proud of the way the younger players have stepped up,” said Kepler. “Each game we have a new hero, and it’s awesome. We have a lot of people that can put the puck in the back of the net, and it’s not just one or two star players. We have some depth, and it’s good to see some of our freshman feel more comfortable being on the ice and working well with the team.”
The next few weeks may determine the rest of the season for the Badgers, but they don’t plan to let it define them.
“What I do know is that whatever experience we do have, we are going to learn from it and we’re going to try to be better the next day,” Kepler said. “Just because we’re a young team doesn’t mean we can’t be successful. We’re not going to let our team’s age define who we are.”