At this point last season, Merrimack women’s hockey coach Erin Hamlen was just getting her team used to one other.
“At this point last year, these players didn’t know each other at all with the exception of making taking an official visit together,” she said. “We had a group of 18 or 19 players who did not know each other, and we basically said, ‘let’s go.’ A year later now, we’ve had time to gel.”
Not only have the Warriors been able to gel, they’ve been hard at work and they’ve grown as a team.
Merrimack hosts Cambridge in an exhibition game this Saturday night at Lawler Rink (7 p.m.). The Warriors will then travel to St. Cloud State to open their second official season as a program in one week (Sept. 30).
For this team, the fresh paint finally has some wear and tear, and that’s a good thing. The newness and nerves of being first-time college hockey players is gone, and the Warriors entered practices getting right down to business.
“Right now, we’re about two months ahead of where we were at this point last season,” Hamlen said. “We’re moving quickly. We have some players coming in with some high offensive ability, which is great.
“We’re looking forward to having some veterans in the locker room. We’ve had the ability to teach right off the start and we’ve been getting into a groove pretty quickly as opposed to (last year) starting from the beginning.”
The Warriors were the youngest team in college hockey last season, with all but one player a true freshman. For most of those players, the biggest gains from freshman to sophomore season aren’t in skill, but in strength and conditioning. It was a focus over the summer and the results are noticeable.
“When you come in as a freshman you don’t have the same knowledge that you do when you leave as a freshman, and that summer in between is very big,” said Hamlen. “We we’ve done in the weight room should transition quickly. We’re better conditioned than we were last year. We’ve had players on campus all summer putting in the effort in the weight room and getting to do some things on the ice that we just didn’t have a chance to do last summer. Not only are our players more seasoned, having a season under our belt, but we’re more knowledgeable.”
The Warriors know they have plenty of proving to do. Despite surprising some Hockey East teams last season, including picking up their first league win over UNH last fall, the Warriors enter the year picked to finish last in the league by the coaches; although they weren’t unanimously selected in the last-place spot.
The Warriors aren’t going to have the most skill, but Hamlen does hope her teams has the most will.
“I love that we’re ranked last and I can’t wait to move up the ladder,” she said. “We don’t project to be the most talented team. We do work on being the hardest-working team. We have talent, that’s not to say we don’t, but we don’t have the multiple national team players other teams have, so we have counter that with work and do a good job everyday making sure that we’re the hardest working.”
Samantha Ridgewell returns for the Warriors as a goaltender. Last season the Saskatchewan native was an All-Rookie selection after posting eight 40-save games and three 50-save performances. On the season, she posted a save percentage of .915.
“Sam was a rock,” Hamlen said. “She was someone who was untested at the collegiate Division 1 level and came in making 30 to 40 saves per game. She made us competitive.”
Merrimack also adds freshman Lea-Kristine Demers, who could push for playing time. Last season she was one of the top goalies in Quebec playing for King’s Edgehill School.
“We anticipate (Demers) to be highly competitive and challenge Sam for the No. 1 spot,” Hamlen said. “She’s from Quebec and has done a great job in prep school there, as well as playing boy’s hockey early on. We’re looking forward to seeing what she can do to challenge Sam for that position.”
Merrimack returns Paige Voight, who led the team with 11 goals and 19 points last season, as well as the heavy-shooting Paige Sorensen at the point (7 goals, 11 assists) and Katelyn Rae (8 goals, 10 assists), who was second on the team with 84 shots.
The Warriors also add Mikyla Grant-Mentis from the PWHL in Ontario. Last season, as a member of the Mississauga Jr. Chiefs, she scored 21 goals and 28 assists in 37 games.
“She was the leading scorer for the majority of the back half of the year in the PWHL,” Hamlen said. “We anticipate big things from her and she has really looked good. Our D-zone should be that much better with the addition of two very mobile puck-moving D (Chloe Cook and Andrea Olson). I anticipate great things for this team. I think we can be head and shoulders above where we were last year.”