Women’s D-III: St. Thomas readies for tough second half

Maddy Fiedler takes the puck down the ice. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)
Maddy Fiedler takes the puck down the ice. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

After a long break, the St. Thomas Tommies women’s hockey team returned to action and started their second half off strong with a sweep of Saint Mary’s that put the Tommies in first place in the MIAC.

“Coming back, you don’t always know what you’re going to get,” said Tommies coach Tom Palkowski. “Other than the first period Friday night, I was very pleased at the pace we played at, some of the things we had been working out of practice moving the puck. Everything seemed to click. We played at a speed which I think favors us, so everything worked out pretty well.”

For St. Thomas, everything starts in net with sophomore Eryn Cooley, who has a 1.13 goals-against average and .944 save percentage, good for ninth in the country. Cooley led St. Thomas to the Frozen Four as a freshman and is playing even better in her second year.

“Eryn got broken into her career in a tough way last year, then played for the national championship in the Frozen Four, but played very well in both of those games,” said Palkowski. “We felt strong with her coming in this year. With a sophomore slump, you never know, but she’s been very focused. She’s just a quiet, consistent, hard-working kid. She doesn’t say a lot, but her teammates respect her. She’s not flashy. She just goes out, makes a save she should and occasionally makes a huge one. She just gives us every opportunity to win games, which as a coach, that’s all you look for out of your goalie.”

Cooley is the anchor of the Tommies’ top-ranked penalty kill, a unit that has been perfect so far this season in killing off all 37 penalties it has faced.

“I hope you’re not going to put the hex on us,” said Palkowski when asked about the PK. “We’ve had pretty much the same four forwards that we use most of the time, Rachel Werdin, Alyssa Wallace, Estee Frantz, and Sarah Moy. They all have some speed, they all have a little grit, and they’re not afraid to get in front of the shot. At the end of the day, penalty killing is a lot of hard work. It’s sacrificing your body to block a shot occasionally, and then it’s just being tough, getting the puck out of the zone at key times. And obviously, we have Eryn back there. It’s just a mix. You need puck luck a little bit as well, whether it’s a rebound or a bouncing puck occasionally to go your way. It’s something we take pride in. Over the years, we’ve been pretty successful at it. This group has just kind of continued it this year.”

While the PK has been perfect, the power play has struggled, scoring only five goals in 37 chances, but Palkowski feels the power play is starting to move in the right direction.

“It’s just trying to find the right combination,” said Palkowski. “It’s just trying to get it to click. I think sometimes you go on the power play and kids relax a little bit. Obviously, we tell our penalty killers they have to crank it up a gear, and the power play can’t be any different. We were able to get one over the weekend, and I think we had one or two against Concordia as well. I feel like we’re starting to move it and get some opportunities, and hopefully we can continue to keep improving in that area.”

Offensively, the Tommies are led by junior Maddy Fielder, who has 15 points in 14 games this season.

“Maddy, she’s got a second gear that she’s able to turn on,” said Palkowski. “She’s probably snake-bitten a little bit as far as being a pure goal scorer, but she creates so many opportunities for herself and her teammates that allows that top line to have success and play in the offensive zone most of the time.”

This weekend, the Tommies return for a key MIAC home-and-home series against No. 5 Gustavus Adolphus. St. Thomas has had success against the Gusties in recent years.

“We’ve had pretty good success the last three or four years against them. Mike (Gustavus coach Mike Carroll) has put together a very young and I would have to assume energetic team. He’s had them firing. They play a similar style to us. They like up-tempo speed and try to minimize errors, and obviously defensively they play pretty solid. Usually when we play them, it’s 2-1; first one to three usually guarantees a victory. I can’t say that’s always the case, but we’ve had so many 1-0 games with Gustavus over the years. I would suspect it’s going to be the same. We go down there Friday, which traditionally, we’ve actually played better in their building than we have at home. We’re hoping to get off to a good start on Friday and see if we can’t secure a victory down there.”

While St. Thomas is looking to return to the Frozen Four, there is a lot of uncertainty about the future of the program. Last May, the MIAC voted to “involuntarily remove” St. Thomas from the MIAC in all sports. Currently, the school is in discussions with the NCAA about transitioning straight to D-I, which would have a impact on the women’s team.

“Well, we talk a lot about it,” said Palkowski. “It’s looking like it probably will happen, and if it does, obviously, I think the only option for us is the WCHA. They have seven teams now, and an eighth team would make a lot of sense. Right now, we’ll definitely be in the MIAC this year, we’ll definitely be on the MIAC next year, and then we’ll wait to hear from the NCAA and what our school decides based on the information they receive.”