FU women looking to build off strong finish

HANCOCK — To say that head coach Matt Marchel has had it easy when it has come to rebuilding the Finlandia Lions women’s hockey team would be a stretch. But as he enters his third year behind the Lions’ bench, Marchel sees a group capable of taking the next step this season after breaking the seal with his first win behind the bench late last season.

He is excited about the quality of the players returning as well as his incoming freshmen. He sees the Lions as a group much closer to what he envisions the program can grow into.

“We are real positive looking forward to this year,” said Marchel. “We have a good batch of freshmen and all of my upperclassmen are great kids, awesome people, do everything right in the classroom, and want to win, want to get better.

“I am really excited about our team’s attitude this year. Everything seems to be going smooth so far. I think everybody has the right idea that this is a team, you don’t just show up anymore.”

That improvement will be important when considering how tough the NCHA is again this season. Preseason No. 2 Adrian, No. 8 St. Thomas and No. 9 Lake Forest, all conference opponents, are ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA.

The Lions’ offense will revolve once again around senior forward Sierra Meiners. Meiners, who will serve as co-captain, scored 13 goals and 16 points last season in 23 games. Possessing the ability to score off the rush, Marchel sees the school scoring record in reach for Meiners this season.

“She can score goals, no doubt about it,” said Marchel. “I expect her to break the single-season scoring record for Finlandia. She was one off of it last season, and that was with her missing a handful of games because of her nursing program.”

Junior forward Natasha Kern took a huge step last season for the Lions. After scoring just two goals as a freshman, Kern chipped in seven goals and nine points as a sophomore. She will need to continue building on that to help make up for the graduation of Alena Fiala and her 13 points last season.

“She puts the work in,” said Marchel. “She stuck around this summer. There were many times this summer, where I would be sitting in the office and I would come up and hear the pucks clanging off the crossbar because she was up in the cage shooting pucks. She definitely puts the work in.”

A trio of sophomores will also be counted on to build off of their strong first seasons. Forwards Bella Abear and Jordan Thoma and forward/defenseman Kait Ryynanen all stepped in and chipped in offensively. Abear led the way with three goals and six points, while Ryynanen added two goals and six points and Thoma picked up five assists.

What makes Ryynanen so important to the Lions is her ability to easily switch between forward and defense in-game. Ryynanen scored the team’s lone game-winning goal, but she also ate up minutes on the blue line, where the Lions are still relatively thin.

Freshman Abby Kolek, a San Marcos, California, native who played last season for the Anaheim Lady Ducks, is a player Marchel feels could step in and contribute quickly on both sides of the puck as she also has the ability to drop back and play defense should the need arise during a game.

Melody Anderson, Bryanna Verhoven, Taylor Witte, Hannah Tormanen and Kaytlin Richardson will all battle, as freshmen, for top six playing time alongside junior Kallin Morris, who picked up two assists last season.

Baraga native Sarah Hockings and co-captain Catlin Siegel are both back for their third year on the Lions’ blue line. Both have learned how quickly Marchel wants the puck moving up ice, and they have made strides to improve their game speed, which should help push the Lions’ opportunistic offense.

The duo will get the chance to help the development of freshman Rebecca Lilly. A native of Invercargill, New Zealand, Lilly comes into the season prepared to work hard to keep her place on New Zealand’s national team, which will compete for in the World Championships in the spring.

“She gets her workout program from them, so she has to double up her workouts and has to do a lot of testing,” said Marchel. “She’ll do a great job filling in where Theresa Wolf was on the blue line. She’s a natural defenseman. She’s tall, she’s strong and she can shoot the puck.”

Sophomore Annah Smiddy went through some growing pains as a freshman, but she was in goal for the Lions’ victory over St. Norbert. Smiddy finished her first season going 1-9-0 in 11 appearances with 5.40 goals against average and an .876 save percentage.

“She had some really great games for us, and she had some not-so-good games for us,” said Marchel. “She has a competitive edge. She works hard for the girls and is in it for the right reasons.”

Smiddy will be pushed this season by freshman Elisabeth Hill, who played last season for Mater Dei Prep.

“She’s doing a great job in there,” said Marchel. “[She has] a great attitude.”

While the playoffs are always the goal for Lions, Marchel expects that his team can build on the lone win from last spring and use their opportunistic offense to their advantage throughout the season. That could lead to more wins this season.