Sioux try to grasp the bigger picture at start of first season in WCHA

Bridget Haeg

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Minnesota women’s hockey team welcomed North Dakota into the WCHA this weekend by scoring 15 goals in two games.

But the Sioux aren’t taking that as a sign they can’t skate in the same conference as the defending national champions.

“We can’t get down. I mean, it’s our first WCHA game. We still have a long time,” North Dakota junior forward Liz Funk said after Friday’s 8-0 loss.

Funk, the team’s leading returning scorer, has played in all 58 games of the team’s history coming into this season.

“We’ve gotten better every year, during the summer, preseason, even during the year too,” Funk said.

She’s right.

Last season was their second as a Division I independent. They went 7-9-0 against WCHA teams, improving on their 2002-03 record of 2-9-1.

They posted a 2003-04 overall record of 16-14-2, the program’s first winning season, going 13-3-0 during the second half.

Their second-half winning percentage exceeded every WCHA team except Wisconsin.

With 16 returning players, Sioux coach Shantel Rivard said she feels confident her team will continue its ascent and fit well in the WCHA.

“I think we have been preparing for it all along. The first two years that we’ve been playing – that was preparation for this year as well,” Rivard said.

But it’s hard to compare quality preparation with their competition’s solid years of experience.

So they looked at what they could control – fitness – and hit the weight room.

“It didn’t matter if it was going to affect us Ö that weekend in a game or anything,” Rivard said. “We were looking at the big picture for down the road.”

After this weekend, it’s apparent their competition considers them a worthy opponent.

“I think they’re going to be a good addition (to the conference),” Gophers senior forward Kelly Stephens said. “It’s funny – as much as I don’t like getting heckled by fans, it’s fun to see the rivalry.

“As they improve, I think the rivalry will get stronger and stronger.”

Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said she agrees North Dakota can compete in the conference.

“I think that, for their third year, they’re in great shape. I think they look good, significantly better than last year,” Halldorson said. “Their schedule starts off really tough, (but) they’ll be all right.”

North Dakota goes from playing the defending national champions to playing Minnesota-Duluth, ranked third in the nation and winner of three consecutive national championships before last year.

As for kicking off their season against Minnesota, Rivard summed up a sentiment that could be the team’s philosophy this year: “Every game is important, and everybody’s out to win when they play. It’s not like we even came into this game thinking it wasn’t possible to win.”