Looking up: Lions look to take next step

Photo provided by Finlandia Athletics Finlandia’s Rebecca Lilly looks on from the blue line during a game last season at the Houghton County Arena.

HANCOCK — When head coach Matt Marchel took over the women’s hockey program at Finlandia University prior to the 2015-16 season, he took over a team that had won just once in three seasons under previous coach Danielle Syrowik. In fact, it had won just twice in five years.

In his first season with the Lions, Marchel’s squad went winless. The next season, they won once, defeating St. Norbert in overtime.

Last season, the Lions won five times, going 5-19-1 on season. All five wins came in Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) play, and the Lions finished just one point behind both Marian and Northland, one of which made the NCHA playoffs.

Heading into 2018-19, the next goal on the Lions’ checklist is an obvious one: make the playoffs.

That task will not be an easy one given that the Lions saw one of the best players in the history of the program, Sierra Meiners, graduate and take her 35 career goals with her. For the second straight season, Meiners scored 13 last year to lead the team.

One of the easiest ways to replace her offense makes sense, and Marchel hopes that his girls will work hard to make it happen.

“Let me say this, there are some clown-sized shoes to fill,” said Marchel. “We are going to have to do it by committee. The way I look it is if every girl from last year’s team scores one more goal than they did last year, we are golden.”

The truth is that the Lions return most of their offense from last season. Senior Natasha Kern had five goals and 11 points last season. Junior Kait Ryynanen had six goals and 10 points. Classmate Bella Abear had four goals and 10 points.

Abear appears poised to take a large leap forward this season. Marchel is happy to see that she has the skating ability to blow past defenders with her speed.

“She puts the extra work in,” said Marchel. “She can move. Getting the puck to the net comes at a premium for us. We have to get it there, and she will be one to get it there.”

Ryynanen has the ability to play both forward and defense, as necessary, but Marchel is hoping that with the depth he has brought in this season, she can focus on her offensive game.

Kern, who worked hard to continue to improve her game in the offseason, will also work hard to get to scoring areas.

Sophomore Abby Kolek is another skater that Marchel is looking to this season. Kolek had a rude awakening of sorts last season as a freshman, scoring just one goal and two points, but Marchel believes that she possesses the type of game that can make her successful in college, if she puts her mind to it.

“Abby did a lot of work in the offseason,” said Marchel. “She’s moving her feet a lot more. She’s a great example that I will use with this year’s freshmen.”

The Lions have added six freshmen to the mix in Taylor Pingrey, Brenna Ceglar, Peyton Airaudi, Lauren Monger, Malone Hiebert, and Roosa Siiki.

Pingrey is one player that Marchel is very excited about. Two seasons ago, as part of Park Rapids High School in Minnesota, she scored 14 goals and 19 points in 23 games. However, while she is a proven scorer, Marchel can already see that she needs to work on areas of her game to become an effective player at the college level.

“She can shoot the puck,” said Marchel. “She is one that I have to get it through her head that she has to move her feet. (She has) a great attitude and works hard in practice. She wants to win.”

Hiebert, who hails from Portland, Oregon, and Monger, who is from West Barnstable, Massachusetts, add differing personalities and both could be big contributors as freshmen.

“Hiebert is a good player, an undersized player,” said Marchel. “For how small she is, she is very strong on the puck. When she is moving, she can fly.”

Siiki is at Finlandia for the fall. She has played hockey at a national level in Finland, and should be able chip in offensively.

On the blue line, Marchel returns his top four, who logged a lot of minutes last season as a four-woman group. While the Lions have not had much offense from their backend in the past, that could change this season, as they have added a pair of freshmen, India Charles and Cassidy Kerzman to the mix.

Assistant captains Caitlin Siegel and Sarah Hockings, who have spent the past three seasons together will be counted upon as leaders this season. In the past, they have logged over 30 minutes a game. This season, barring injury, they should see the ice less, which will actually be a positive for the duo.

“We’ve always known that Caitlyn has an offensive upside that we don’t get to see because she is always gassed (at the end of a shift),” said Marchel. “Sarah Hockings can skate up ice with the best of them and she skates like an Olympic skier sometimes.”

Rebecca Lilly, a native of New Zealand, had a respectable first season, scoring two goals and six points in 25 games to lead the offense from the blue line. She is joined by classmate Kylee Dyni, who joined the team for the final 10 games of the season, racking up four assists and five points in that span.

Charles likes to push the offense herself, and she showed that as a senior at Irondale in Minnesota, where she scored eight goals and 18 points during the 2016-17 season. She is coming off an injury suffered last season while playing soccer before transferring to Finlandia.

Kerzman similarly had a strong final season in 2016-17 for Coeur d’Alene Hockey Academy in Idaho, where she racked up seven goals and 15 points in 27 games before playing last season for the Montana Wildcats last season.

Behind the blue line corps, junior Annah Smiddy and Sarah Gundry will protect the crease alongside freshman Tori Illig, who is recovering from hip surgery.

Smiddy went 5-16-1 last season with a 4.16 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. She also had two shutouts.

Marchel appreciates her gameday demeanor, which has proven helpful to the girls in front of her.

“Smiddy is rock solid,” said Marchel. “She had a fantastic year last year. She was Player of the Week in the NCHA two or three times. She is stoic, emotionless. She gives up a goal, or she makes a big glove save, her reaction is the same. To me as a coach, that is exactly what you want.”

Gundry saw action in four contests last season, going 0-2-0 with a 3.76 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.

Illig grew up in the Oakland Junior Grizzlies program from the greater Detroit area. Marchel is confident she will push for a spot as she regains her strength.

With the added depth this season, there is a lot for Marchel.