Women pucksters open with high hopes, Huskies

Paul Markgraff

The Minnesota women’s hockey team plays its first game tonight at Mariucci Arena in its first ever WCHA Women’s League game. The Gophers will face St. Cloud State to begin their third season.
Minnesota plays St. Cloud at home tonight before travelling to play the Huskies Saturday afternoon.
And the team is buzzing with excitement.
After the Gophers’ third -place finish in last year’s AWCHA championship, they are feeling confident and ready to make a run for this season’s title.
All of the ingredients are there. They have potential, seasoned veterans, exciting new talent and a brand new league to play in.
Following a third-place finish at last year’s AWCHA championship, and a fourth-place finish the year before, the team is hoping to take its game to that other level.
Look who’s back
Coach Laura Halldorson is fired up about the number of veterans playing this season. The Gophers roster lists three seniors, 13 juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen.
“I think the big key for us this year is experience,” Halldorson said. “We have several juniors, so no longer can we be called a young team. Hopefully, this will be our best season yet.”
Not all is well with Minnesota. Jenny Schmidgall and Brittny Ralph, two players that combined for 42 goals and 56 assists last season, left the Gophers to play for Minnesota-Duluth during the offseason.
Junior center Kris Scholz said she expects Minnesota will do fine. “That is a lot of goals to make up,” said Scholz. “If we don’t score a lot of goals, we’ll have to win by playing defense.”
While Scholz was mildly concerned, junior right wing Nadine Muzerall isn’t worried about the loss of Schmidgall and Ralph at all.
“We have some of the best offensive players in the nation, and we have some of the best defensive players in the nation,” Muzerall said. “And we probably have the best goalie in the nation.
“I try not to look back,” she said. “I want to look forward.”
Rising stars
Three freshmen have joined Minnesota this season, and all three plan on being an offensive presence.
Ronda Curtin, a freshman center from Roseville, comes to the team as the winner of the 1999 Minnesota Ms. Hockey award, which the best high school senior in the state receives. The Gophers now have three Ms. Hockey winners on their roster.
“She has really good hands,” Halldorson said. “She sees the ice well, and she has a knack for scoring.”
Alyson Sundberg, a freshman right winger from Roseville, will also be playing up front. And Gwen Anerson, a freshman left winger, will provide the goal-scoring experience she brings with her from the Minnesota Thoroughbreds, a very successful 19 and under program.
The new league
The brand new WCHA Women’s League has caused quite a favorable stir in the women’s hockey community.
Composed of six other teams besides the Gophers, the new league includes Minnesota State; Minnesota-Duluth; St. Cloud State; Wisconsin; Bemidji State and Ohio State.
“The games (before) didn’t mean as much as they will now,” Halldorson said. “We have a league; we’ll have a postseason championship tournament.
“It’s going to be exciting,” she continued. “We’ll have some great hockey here in the Midwest.”
And with the arrival of the new league comes tougher competition. Halldorson said the days of being on the winning end of an eight-goal blowout are behind her team.
“I think, overall, it’s going to be a much more competitive season,” she said.
But the tough competition doesn’t end there. The Gophers will also have to face top-ranked East Coast teams like Brown, New Hampshire, Northeastern, Dartmouth, Providence and last season’s AWCHA champion, Harvard.
“Not only do we have a tough league schedule, but our non-league schedule couldn’t be any tougher than it is,” said Halldorson.
But make no mistake, the team is confident. They were ranked fourth in the U.S. College Hockey Online Poll and Halldorson says that’s where they should be.
Senior left wing Shannon Kennedy is ready for the season to begin. “I think we’ve improved a lot,” she said. “Maturity has been a big improvement.”
And Scholz knows the team will do well. “Everybody understands the way things run and the way things work,” she said. “Keeping everybody on the same page, we’ll get there.”

Paul Markgraff covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]