It’s been a quiet week. After pressing into action a month ago we’ve hit the midpoint of the fall and an off weekend provides some time to catch up for everyone. So much gets pushed to the back burner once the season gets underway. The players face the same issues – after a couple of long road weekends it’s nice to have the opportunity to prepare without the urgency of our regular weekly cycle.
Last weekend’s contests with SLU and Clarkson gave us some good feedback on where we stand and what areas we need to really focus on with our young team. On the surface it’s easy to feel that we deserved a better fate than a tie out of the two game series. The effort was solid both nights. We generated plenty of chances to put either game in the win column but failed to capitalize when it counted. I have no idea who was operating the shot clock at Clarkson or what they were drinking, but we carried the play and generated a lot more scoring chances and shots than they allowed.
Incredibly, we had the same officials for the Clarkson game as we’d had the night before at SLU. Even more amazing – on Saturday they decided to let the teams play, only whistling 4 penalties for the entire contest. It was the first game we’ve had this year where we had the upper hand in power play opportunities (3-1). We failed to convert while on the man up, which was disappointing because we did generate some outstanding chances.
Playing the North Country teams over the past four years has been an interesting challenge. Despite being located only a few miles apart, the two squads are a distinct contrast in styles. SLU has always played a very similar style to ours. They have good team speed, transition well and usually excel in man advantage situations. Clarkson on the other hand plays a very disciplined, slow it down, trapping style that presents a different set of challenges. No matter the outcome, we did gain some valuable experience last weekend and our coaching staff can see that we are making gains in a lot of different areas. We’re only 8 games into the season but our defensive play has improved immeasurably over the past four weeks. Without question we’re stronger up the middle this year; Nicole Gifford, Arielle O’Neill and Heather Kashman are all doing a terrific job. Amazingly, we’re talking about a freshman and two sophomores. Add in the three freshman and one sophomore on the blueline and a freshman in net – and you begin to see just how young this group is. One of the things I love about transitioning to a young team again is watching the dramatic development you see week to week. By the end of the season this group will be ‘seasoned’ and a lot wiser than their class/age might indicate.
Which brings me to another observation that has jumped out at all of our coaches this year. The speed, power and strength of the women’s game continues to push forward at a rapid pace. The athletes are more dynamic, bigger and more powerful than in years past. Ten years ago when I crossed the street from the men’s game to take over our women’s program, there were a lot of very good players who would be undersized and underpowered by today’s standards. What is distinctly different today is the sheer number of talented, powerful and dynamic players there are at the Division One collegiate level. In my early years there were a handful of elite players on a couple of teams and then an enormous gap between those athletes and the general talent pool in the college game. That’s changed dramatically. Today there are more elite players without a doubt; but the biggest change has been the rapid and significant improvement in the general talent pool. It’s impressive to step back and realize just how far the game has come in a short time. It’s also a great reminder why Team USA and Team Canada dominate international play. The best women’s league in the world is right here in our midst. The combination of world class facilities, veteran coaching staffs and great competition – virtually assures both the Canadian and American systems that no one is going to close that gap in the near future. If anything the US college game is the best feeder system in the world and will continue to push the envelope developmentally with the best young talent in North America. It’s exciting to be a part of such a dynamic growth and development cycle.
Six years ago I remember vividly as Kacey Bellamy arrived at UNH – a skinny, excited and talented young freshman in a class with more than it’s share of terrific hockey players. Fast forward to this past summer as I watched Kacey help run our Wildcat hockey school; I had to really struggle to remember Kacey the ‘rookie’. In her place now I was watching this powerful, confident and superbly conditioned young women who’s commitment and dedication has helped elevate her game to the highest level. Honestly, it is so inspiring to watch that kind of personal and physical commitment and growth in one of your athletes. The game changer going forward is that I can foresee a time in the not too distant future when the Kacey Bellamy’s will be more the norm as opposed to the exception. That’s what is changing so rapidly within our sport – not just the athleticism. It’s the attitude, dedication and commitment these young athletes are bringing to the game coupled with their athleticism that is pushing the bar forward so quickly. And it’s making the women’s college game all that much more entertaining to watch and be a part of.