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Bemidji State assistant women’s hockey coach Shane Veekner, center, supervises as the Beavers run a drill during practice Wednesday at the Sanford Center. The Beavers take on Providence on the road in their first series next weekend. Jack Hittinger | Bemidji Pioneer

Women's hockey: Bemidji State enjoying early practices, but many questions remain

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BEMIDJI – The practices have been spirited, but members of the Bemidji State women’s hockey team know there are still questions before the season begins next week.

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“So far I think the energy level has been great,” BSU head coach Steve Sertich said. “It’s been a fun start. We have a few that are dinged up a bit already, but for the most part I’ve been pretty pleased with how things have gone.”

Granted, the Beavers are only in their first week of official practices, but the turnaround in college hockey is quick – BSU begins its season Oct. 5 at Providence. The team’s annual Green and White Game is 7 p.m. Friday at the Sanford Center. Senior Sadie Lundquist said that well tell the team a lot about who fits where.

“It’s hard to tell since we haven’t put lines together and stuff, but everyone looks like they’re in good shape,” Lundquist said. “Everybody returned ready to go for the season. We’ve been ready to get on the ice.”

This year, though, the Beavers will have to get on the ice without a big part of their success last season. All-American goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova graduated after going 13-17-3 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .932 save percentage. She started in all but four of the Beavers’ games. What’s worse, her backup – Alana McElhinney – also graduated.

Replacing an All-American (Tomcikova was an AHCA All-America second-team selection and first-team all-WCHA) is never simple, but the Beavers think this year’s crop of goaltenders – Jessica Havel, Abby Ryplanski and Alexane Rodrigue – are up the challenge.

Havel, the Grand Rapids native, only saw game action once last season but appears to have come back strong.

Ryplanski, meanwhile, transferred in from Niagara after the Purple Eagles disbanded their program. Last season the Winnipeg native started half (17) of her team’s games, going 5-9-3 as a freshman.

“It’s tough to replace someone like Z,” Lundquist said. “But Jessica worked out hard this summer and she’s come back in great shape.

“She’s been putting a show on for some people, stuffing people pretty good. We also have Ryplanski, who’s got some good experience in college, so we’ll see what happens.”

Sertich said so far Havel and Ryplanski are very even.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how it all falls out,” the seventh-year BSU head coach said. “I would say Jess has been really solid in net so far, but Abby has some D-I experience. So those two will probably get the look early, and the rookie (Rodrigue) will get her chances too.”

The Beavers will also be without three of their top for defensemen. Montana Vichorek, Marlee Wheelhouse and Kim Lieder all graduated, although Erika Wheelhouse returns as a senior captain in the back line.

“Actually, we have a lot of juniors back on defense, so they’re upperclassmen too,” Wheelhouse said. “I think they’ll be able to step up this year and hopefully fill some of the big shoes that were left behind last year.”

Despite the question marks on defense, offense will undoubtedly be a strength. Lundquist led the team in points while Emily Erikson was BSU’s leading goal scorer. Mackenzie Thurston, Natasha Kostenko, Kristin Huber and Tess Dusik will all have to take larger roles.

“Offensively we return all of our main players except for one,” Wheelhouse said. “We have a few strong rookies coming in as freshman, too. I think we’ll be a fast team. As always, we’ll battle. That’s Beaver hockey.”

BSU finished a respectable 17-17-3 a season ago, and were even ranked in the national poll for the first time in the program’s history early in the season. The goal this year is get even better.

“We’re in a really tough league,” Lundquist said of the WCHA. “When you play teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin, you’re going to play a lot of one-goal games where you’ve got to play defensive against them.

“But people always kind of underestimate us, and sometimes we underestimate ourselves as well. It’s not a bad thing to have people underestimate you. Then when we come in, we can outwork some teams and pull out some wins.”

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Jack Hittinger
Jack Hittinger is a sports reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on Bemidji State but also covering area high schools. He hails from the Great State of Michigan. Read his Bemidji State blog at http://thebeaverblog.areavoices.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @Jackhitts.
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