The competitive winter sports seasons at Bemidji High School begin today when the girls hockey team entertains Thief River Falls at 7 p.m. at the Bemidji Regional Events Center.
Tonight's contest is one of three that the Lumberjacks will play at the BREC. On Dec. 11 BHS will host Moorhead at the new rink and the Jacks will close the regular season at the BREC Feb. 3 against Roseau.
In between the young squad will face continual challenges.
"We have 16 girls out this year and after two weeks of practice I can see that we are not where we need to be if we want to challenge for the section championship," said coach Matt Menne. "So far we seem to lack that certain aggressiveness and tenacity that our program has come to expect.
"But, during our scrimmages against Grand Rapids and Spring Lake Park, I saw many more positives than negatives with this team."
Menne currently is working with three lines, two sets of defensemen and a pair of goalies. Senior captain Casey Miller can play on a forward line or as a defenseman but she will miss tonight's contest because of illness.
Tonight's projected first line will feature three seniors as Janie Johnson will center Chaniel Nelson and Becca Gregg.
The second line will find sophomore Karliegh Wolkerstorfer flanked by sophomore Erin Booth and junior Allie Lapp while the third line consists of three sophomores. Karli Tower is set to center that trio and joining her will be Emily Boyer and Heather Bjerke.
The defensive combinations join senior Amanda Hunt with sophomore Allie Heifort and senior Megan Phelps with freshman Hannah Olson.
A pair of seniors, Emily Denzer and Laura Thompson, will handle the goaltending duties but neither has much game experience. A year ago Thompson tended the net for 153 minutes and posted a 3-0 record. Denzer saw 104 minutes of playing time and went 2-0.
"I think a weakness could be our overall depth," Menne said. "Offensively we have experience and our third line of sophomores is showing that they can compete at this level. But we don't have the depth we used to have and everbody on the roster will be put to the test."
Lapp returns to the ice after scoring 17 goals and adding 18 assists last winter. Gregg tallied 11 goals and 21 points a year ago while Nelson had nine goals and 21 points and Johnson eight goals and 15 points.
Wolkerstorfer is the only other forward who found the scoreboard a year ago as she tallied six goals and nine points.
Hunt collected 11 assists in 2009-10 while Heifort had four goals and five points and Phelps one goal.
Miller recorded eight goals and 14 points last season.
"I think our top two lines should be able to compete with anyone but overall our team will be a work in progress," Menne said.
"Our strength will be our seniors. All of our returning players have tremendous varsity experience and as a team we have speed but we also have many questions.
"We have to have everybody feeling the energy and developing the tenacity to play the game and we, as coaches, are anxious to see that develop," the coach added.
There will be no gradual easing into this year's schedule as BHS has four consecutive road games following tonight's home appearance.
Tuesday sees the Lumberjacks at Roseau and next weekend they will head to Buffalo for games against the home team and North Wright County.
The early road swing will conclude Nov. 30 at Warroad.
"A few years ago Bemidji, Moorhead and Elk River dominated the section but now the scene has shifted to Bemidji, Warroad, Brainerd, Roseau, North Wright County and even Sartell," Menne said. "Last year Roseau and Bemidji were the top two teams but every section game went down to the wire. And I don't expect anything different this year."
Menne would like to think that BHS will be in the section title hunt again next spring and he is eager to chart the team's progress.
"I'm excited to see how we start the season and to see how we have improved by mid-season," the coach said. "I'm anxious to see how we play against this level of competition. We want to play the game the right way and that means utilizing everybody on the ice, playing unselfishly, winning the 1-on-1 battles and creating 2-on-1 breaks.
"I want my kids to compete and I expect that we will be in many one-goal games," Menne continued. "If we can win those games, I can see us having a very good season."