The Rhinelander/Antigo/Three Lakes girls' hockey team is set to embark on what could be the most successful season it has had in its four years of existence.
The Northern Edge hopes that a combination of returning players and incoming talent will be the catalyst to improve a team that has gone 5-36-1 over the last two seasons.
"We have high expectations for this season," Northern Edge co-coach Nick English said. "Our goal is to work hard in every practice to prepare for each game as it approaches. Our ultimate goal is to be playing our best hockey toward the end of January."
English is in his first year as a coach in the program. Antigo and Rhinelander each provide a coach for the co-op. English replaces Angel Zimmerman as Antigo's coach in the co-op. Jon Forster is in his second year as Rhinelander's coach.
Rhinelander returns two All-Great Northern Conference players from last season. Sophomore forward/defender Gabbe Millot (Rhinelander) led the team with 10 goals and four assists. Junior goalie Sophie Schmidt (Rhinelander) went 2-18-1 with a 4.51 goals against average while stopping 89 percent of the shots she faced. She made 731 saves last season, including a team postseason record 66 stops in a 5-0 loss to Stevens Point/Wisconsin Rapids in a WIAA regional final.
English said a key to this season is to lighten Schmidt's workload considerably.
"Last year, she had to save a lot of pucks and had a lot of traffic coming to the net," he said. "That's one thing we stressed a lot in practice, keeping the opposing team outside that high-scoring area right in the slot," English said. "If we can get the puck away from the middle, and keep pucks to the outside, we let Sophie see clear shots from the outside. We have confidence that she's going to make that save every time."
The Edge has several other key players returning from last year's team. Senior Sierra Vinger (Rhinelander) was second on the team in scoring with seven goals and three assists. Kaitlin Rhode (senior, Antigo) had three goals and two assists. Rachel Blomdahl (sophomore, Rhinelander) and Maddie Shinners (senior, Antigo) each had three goals and an assist.
Other returning players from last year's team are Emily Arno (junior, Rhinelander), Makalya Mexico (sophomore, Rhinelander), Star Fermanich (sophomore, Antigo) and Rachel Fuller (senior, Antigo).
The Edge has plenty of new talent entering the program. Forward Katie Detert (freshman, Rhinelander) was selected to take part in USA Hockey's girls' select 14 and 15-year player development camp. Sophomore defender Lauren Smith (Antigo) played with the boys on the Antigo Area Youth Hockey Association's bantam team last year and has caught the eye of the coaching staff. Another newcomer is forward Kirsten Kolasa (sophomore, Rhinelander). A transfer from Sparta High School, Kolasa had a goal and four assists last season for the Black River Falls co-op.
The third team in the co-op, Three Lakes, added two skaters to the roster this year - seniors Brooke Welch and Cassie Hogar.
"We are counting on three specific seniors - Maddie Shinners, Sierra Vinger (and) Brooke Welch to be the leaders of the team. We have some incoming freshmen/sophomores that we are also depending on to make an immediate impact. Katie Detert, Lauren Smith, among others," English said.
Other first-year players on the team are freshmen Megan Gerdes (Rhinelander), Taylor Trachte (Rhinelander), Marisa Young (Antigo), Jenni Carlson (Rhinelander), Lindsey Steger (Antigo) and Marie Sandstrom (Rhinelander).
Shinners has been named the team's captain with Schmidt, Vinger and Welch serving as alternate captains.
The Edge lists 21 players on its opening-day roster, giving the team depth it has not had in recent seasons.
"We feel that our biggest strength is going to be our skating ability and depth at all positions," English said. "We feel confident that we will have two very strong forward lines and defensive pairings ... Last year we did not have much of a third line, if at all. This year, I think our third line is going to be big contributors for us."
The Great Northern Conference appears to be wide open this season. None of the seven teams in the conference cracked Wisconsin Prep Hockey's preseason top-10. Last year's top three teams in the conference - Point/Rapids, Marshfield and Northland Pines - all have new head coaches. Tomahawk lost its two top players from last year, Kendall Nelson and Kacey Iwen.
"We feel that the competition we see throughout the season will prepare us for February when it comes time for regionals," English said. "Northland Pines, Point-Rapids, and Marshfield are three of the top teams year in and year out. We are looking to compete at a high level in all of our conference games."
The team record for wins is eight, set during the 2009-10 season. The last time the team won a WIAA playoff game was 2008, when Rhinelander was a standalone high school program.
Seven GNC teams compete in the same sectional. The Central Wisconsin Storm, with new head coach Jana Jurkovich, is the favorite in the sectional and ranked No. 2 in the Wisconsin Prep Hockey preseason poll.
The team held an intrasquad scrimmage Friday in Antigo, breaking the team into two, 10-player squads.
"What impressed me the most was the speed that we played with," English said of the scrimmage. "I think we have some girls who have some pretty good speed out there. I was very happy to see that."
The Northern Edge opens the season Saturday against No. 10 Appleton United in Antigo. The team's GNC opener will be at Tomahawk Monday. The Edge will not skate at the Rhinelander Ice Arena until the third annual Hodagland girls' hockey tournament, which will take place Dec. 26-28.
Laura Harvey of the Antigo Daily Journal contributed to this report.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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