The 2013-14 campaign was, by all accounts, the most successful season the women’s ice hockey team has played since NESCAC round robin play began in 2001. The team posted a 5-6-5 conference record, which included wins or ties against every team in the league, including Middlebury (12-0-4, first in the conference) and Amherst (9-3-4, second). They finished fifth in the league and allowed the third-fewest goals in conference matchups.
This season, expectations are even higher for the Birds. They are returning all but three of their players from last year. Highlighting the veteran core are co-captains Jordan Schildhaus ’15, who is a two-time all-NESCAC second-teamer, and Cara Jankowski ’15, as well as Jess Brennan ’17, who marked the highest point tally for a Cardinal in nine years when she lit the lamp nine times and tallied 12 assists.
Schildhaus, who was named NESCAC Rookie of the Year in the 2011-12 season, emphasized the lack of a learning curve entering the season as a systemic advantage the Red and Black hold this year compared to past seasons.
“We only have three freshmen this year, so it was easy to get them on the same page, in terms of our returners leading by example and getting ready for the start of the season,” she said. “It’s great, having so many [veterans] who know the pace of the game, who know what the competition is, who know that we got at least a point out of every weekend last season, knowing that teams like Williams aren’t going to give us anything easily.”
Jankowski echoed her co-captain’s statements.
“It’s really important when we talk about our systems to have everyone back, because we don’t have to spend a lot of time reviewing that, and we can focus on what we need to do better as opposed to taking time to point out technical stuff,” she said.
Last season was the team’s best in Head Coach Jodi McKenna’s tenure at Wesleyan. Both captains identified a culture change as a huge factor in this success. Jankowski credited McKenna’s influence as well as that of Director of Athletics Mike Whalen.
“Everyone bought into what Jodi was doing here with this team, and into what Wesleyan Athletics expects from us,” Jankowski said. “I think that played a huge role. Besides depth, and talent, and skill, the mental aspect is really important.”
Schildhaus, too, has experienced the progression of the team as a whole since her first year.
“The whole mentality has changed from freshman year,” Schildhaus said. “We have a lot more depth than previous years. Everyone wants it. In previous years, they just didn’t work the way we do now. We know what we need to do. Jodi was able to recruit girls that have the full package, who are ready to work, who can play 120 minutes a weekend. That’s the biggest part of our team, it’s just that everyone wants it more. The freshman class, combined with the upperclassmen leaders, really changed the program.”
The class of 2017 brought a new energy to the team that wasn’t as evident in past years. They also brought another key to victory: speed.
“Our forecheck was a lot faster [last year] than in the past few years,” Schildhaus said. “Our forecheck was able to change so that we could be much more aggressive, and play less conservatively, not just sitting in our defensive end. We were able to trap them, force turnovers, and keep ourselves in their defensive end.”
Jankowski added that, beginning last year, the Birds had the talent to send two strong power-play units, when in the past, they just had one team that could handle the man-advantage effectively.
“I think [special teams play] is really powerful when you talk about getting points in those crucial situations,” Jankowski said.
Experience between the pipes will also play a huge role in the women’s chase for a league title. Laura Corcoran ’16 is returning from an exceptional season, in which she finished second in the league with a 1.85 goals-against average and tied for first with a 0.936 save percentage. Corcoran benefitted from the luxury of getting plenty of rest, as fellow netminder Corinne Rivard ’16 held court for 619 minutes last year and tallied a respectable 2.23 goals against and a 0.927 save percentage, which was sixth in the league.
This preseason was a bit different for the Cards, as well, with the ice laid down on their rink since September, compared to mid-October when the ice has been laid in past years. That has enabled a more rigorous preseason regimen. This extra time on the ice could also give the Cardinals an extra step on opponents early in the season, when other schools will still be finding their legs.
Jankowski feels that the team has benefited greatly from having the home ice down.
“To have the core of the team playing for eight weeks before we hit the ice with Jodi was a huge difference,” Jankowski said. “We were training six days a week through the fall. It was the most intense it’s ever been.”
The season commences with a Little Three date with defending conference champion Williams, against whom they have split the opening weekend slates for three straight years. After grabbing the opening game last year, they lost the second game of the weekend 6-2, despite having a third-period lead in that game. That loss still haunts Jankowski.
“Every minute of every game counts,” Jankowski said. “We were one point away from home ice last year, and that third period was the difference between [fifth place and fourth].”
Schildhaus hopes to catch the Ephs off guard when they come to visit this weekend.
“Coming off last year, Williams has a lot at stake; we’re just going into it ready to play hard,” Schildhaus said. “I could see them having the ‘we’ve-got-a-NESCAC-championship-under-our-belt’ mentality, so we hope to outwork them. Three years in a row we’ve won the first game and lost the second. Our senior class knows that’s not going to fly this year, and hopefully, we can come out of the first weekend with a sweep of the defending champs.”
The team is still fighting history, though, if it aspires to make a playoff run. The women’s team has never won a NESCAC playoff game, and hasn’t beaten Amherst since the ’03-’04 season. The team has also never beaten Middlebury in 48 match-ups dating back to 1978. If the Cardinals hope to achieve any of their goals, they must surely tally some historic wins by season’s end.
The Cardinals open up with a home series on the Spurrier-Snyder Rink this Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16 and 17, against defending champion Williams.
“We’re excited,” Schildhaus said. “I think we’re going to surprise people this year. We know what a NESCAC period, game, weekend is like. We’re ready.”