NORTH ANDOVER — The Merrimack women’s hockey program officially becomes a reality on Friday night, when the Warriors open their program, and season, with a 6 p.m. faceoff opposite St. Cloud State at Lawler Rink.
For four Warriors — Jackie Pieper, Chaislyn Burgio, Jillian Battista and Marie Delabre — it’s their second year on campus. They spent last season working one-on-one with Merrimack head coach Erin Hamlen and assistants Kacey Bellamy and Brent Hill.
While the coaching staff was assembling a roster, the four Warriors were on the ice daily, working on their craft.
“We were mostly working on trying to improve ourselves,” said Delabre, a transfer from Minnesota-Duluth who served as the Warriors’ captain in their exhibition win over the Whitby Wolves last Friday.
“There were things the coaches wanted to see us work on and we spent the entire year working on those things,” she said. “It was really good to be out there just the four of us, and three coaches. Each coach was able to look at the players and let us know where we could improve.”
Now that the team is assembled and on campus, practices are obviously different. Not just that, but the four returning players are thrilled to have teammates to share the locker room with.
Tonight is the start of something that the players hope is something special. For many of the Warriors on the inaugural team, the opportunity to be part of a program with a clean slate was an opportunity too good to pass up. Most players never the get opportunity to write their own history book the way Merrimack does this season.
They’re not the only ones apparently excited. On Thursday, the Merrimack athletic department said that more than 1,000 tickets were gone. In just their first game as a program, Merrimack’s opener will be one of the highest-attended regular-season games in Hockey East’s history, likely beating out the last four Hockey East championship games.
The record — at least recently — is 1,367, which Vermont drew for a game against Union in 2013.
“I’m honored to be a part of the program,” Delabre said. “To be able to start this team, it’s really cool. No one really knows us. We’re new. Anything can happen and that’s a cool feeling. I think we know we’re starting something special.”
Merrimack enters the season with the four returning players, one junior walk-on and 16 freshmen. It’s a new program, so it’s understandably young. Merrimack isn’t using its allotted 18 scholarships this season in an effort to spread out the money and create a more balanced roster for recruiting.
But that youthfulness isn’t something the players are prepared to use as an excuse.
“We’re young but we’re talented,” Delabre said. “I’m not worried at all. Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we don’t work hard. I always think that it’s not the age that counts, it’s how you work and how you play, and we’re a very hard-working team. We know that we have to be.”
After the home opener on Friday, the Warriors will also host St. Cloud State at 2 p.m. on Saturday. They’ll be on the road next weekend at Robert Morris before returning home for the Hockey East opener on Oct. 17 against UNH.