New faces, goals for women’s hockey

by Tim Nichols

It’s called the next level.
It’s a fictional place that teams are always trying to find. Players want to take their ability to this place, fans want to see their teams go there, coaches take heat for not guiding their troops there.
In the inaugural season of Minnesota women’s hockey, a foundation was set which should provide a strong base for growth in the future. The Gophers featured 17 freshman, nine sophomores, and a lone senior.
Led by the first line of Nadine Muzerall, Kris Scholz and Ambria Thomas, dubbed “the production line” for their play-making ability and national-best plus-146 rating, the rookie team posted a 21-7-3 record. That gaudy win total earned them a place in the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance’s (AWCHA) National Championship in Boston, Mass.
The Gophers went against two very experienced teams in New Hampshire and Northeastern, and Minnesota was handled easily in both games.
“I said to my players after the second game that we played like a bunch of freshmen, which is what we were,” coach Laura Halldorson said. “We went into that tournament real inexperienced.”
That statement might seem harsh, but it doesn’t demean the accomplishments of the 1997 team.
“After time had passed and we were able to look back at the tournament,” Halldorson said, “that’s when I think the frustration went away and we started feeling better about ourselves and very satisfied with the season as a whole.”
After all, in only their first year of existence, the Gophers went all the way to the women’s hockey version of the Final Four. Not too bad for the first shot.
Minnesota then went out and improved itself by signing six blue-chip recruits for the new season. The Gophers will also have a gold medal-winning Olympian in their arsenal.
Two new players who will make an immediate impact for the 1998-99 Gophers are sisters Courtney and Shannon Kennedy, both of whom transferred from Colby College in Maine. The two were originally recruited by Halldorson when she was coach of the White Mules.
Courtney was a first-team All-American last year, leading the nation in goals by a defender with 18. She will add a wicked shot and scoring touch to the blue line, and should help rejuvenate a struggling power play, as she was fourth in the nation in power-play goals with eight.
Big sister Shannon is the lone junior on the team and will make a run at the first line this season. But playing time at forward might be a scarce commodity this season with the addition of Tracy Engstrom of Willmar, Minn., and the 1998 Minnesota Ms. Hockey Award winner Laura Slominski of Burnsville, Minn. Slominski set a single-season school record with 44 goals, 28 assists and eight hat tricks in the 1997-98 season.
The back-up goalie from a year ago, Sarah Harms, transferred to Minnesota State University-Mankato (formally known as Mankato State), leaving Tulsa, Okla. native Crystal Nicholas to take over the second-string goalkeeping duties behind sophomore Erica Killewald. Harms was named her high school team’s MVP in 1997. Oh, by the way — she played for the men’s team.
But the biggest coup of the off-season was the announcement that 1996 Ms. Hockey winner and last year’s AWCHA tournament MVP, former New Hampshire forward Winny Brodt, will be skating with the Gophers this season.
Brodt tallied 11 goals and 23 assists in her one and only year with New Hampshire. The decision for Brodt to come to Minnesota seemed to be a joint decision between herself and her family.
“For her, it was important to come home and play in front of her friends and family,” Halldorson said. “We’re happy to have her come back to the state. Certainly she was the most well-known female hockey player in the state of Minnesota over the past five years.”
The last in a storied list of new players, ironically, is the first player Minnesota ever signed: Edina’s Jenny Schmigdall, a member of the Olympic gold medal-winning team. She is poised to emerge as the key play-maker at Minnesota.
“We don’t want to put too much pressure on her to be more than a student-athlete,” Halldorson said, “(but) she’s the type of player that has great hands and great vision on the ice, and what she does is make the players around her better.”
One of the few negatives in the Gophers’ first season was their lack of quality competition. Minnesota played a schedule riddled with games against club teams and relatively inferior talent. But the Gophers will only face one non-varsity team this season on November 15 against Minnesota-Duluth.
Minnesota will jump right into the fire when they open at MSU-Mankato Oct. 30 and then play preseason No. 4 Harvard and defending national champion and preseason No. 1 New Hampshire.
With all of these factors to consider, and with only one year of experience behind them, what will be the next level for the 1998-99 Minnesota women’s hockey team?
“I’d be very pleased to see us become a power in college women’s hockey. I don’t think we could say that’s what we were last year. We were competitive, but we were very young,” Halldorson said. “I would be very pleased to see us get to the point that we went into every game very confidently and could consider ourselves to be one of the best teams in the country.”