Amidst hockey renaissance, Auggies look to raise bar in MIAC

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By Ray Biggs
D3hockey.com Managing Editor

MINNEAPOLIS - As final preparations continue for a pair of weekend series against St. Thomas, there's a lot of excitement about the hockey programs at Augsburg. 

Bridget Wagner has four goals this season for the Auggie women. Photo: Kevin Healy for Augsburg University

The level of excitement surrounding the men and women is not without justification. The Auggies acquired a strong taste of success a season ago, with the Auggie men going to the NCAA tournament after hoisting the MIAC tournament trophy, and the Auggie women came within a goal of accompanying the men into the tournament as they fell in the MIAC championship game to the Tommies to cap a 19 win season, which is the second highest total in school history.  

The Auggie men and women appear primed to raise the bar even further this season. The programs have combined to start 14-1, good for the highest combined men's and women's team winning percentage among any school in Division III while maintaining the early lead in both the men's and women's standings in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.  

That continued success is indicative of an ongoing hockey renaissance happening at the Twin Cities area institution. Women's head coach Michelle McAteer has been at the forefront of the recent success of her program. 

"We're really happy with where we're at and the stretch of games we've had so far," McAteer said. "Even in the first game we dropped against Scholastica I thought we played well. We've done a good job of executing our gameplans and accomplishing what we'd like to accomplish..... Where we are, we couldn't be happier."

She has also spearheaded a massive long term overhaul of the program that has opened eyes across the West region, and the country. In the season prior to her 2010-11 arrival, Augsburg was among the league's cellar dwellers with just two wins in 2009-10. A one win improvement in McAteer's first season was the beginning of a long, detail oriented process that has produced significant results years later.   

"It's a difficult process, and it was harder than I thought it would be," McAteer said. "As a young coach you're optimistic and enthusiastic, but it's challenging. It's a combination of trying to recruit and get more talent in our program, but we also focused on the development of the players we had and tried to make them better. We set out to do a step by step approach. Every year was about getting better, and every day was about getting better. In those early years it was comparing improvements in shots for and shots against, and the things that are tangible in addition to the wins and losses. Beyond that it was building on that development model, and getting more talent and building a culture that works hard and is really close knit. Those factors combined allow us to keep moving forward."

That culture has paid off greatly for the Auggies women, as evidenced by the overall team depth that they have continued to amass. 10 different players have scored a goal for Augsburg this season on an attack that scores 3.43 goals per game to rank 16th in the country. Even more impressively, the Auggies have improved in that area despite losing 3 of last year's top four scorers. Sophomore Bridget Wagner sets the pace with four goals and three assists thus far, and hasn't slowed down since an 18 point rookie campaign. While she establishes the team's top end in terms of scoring, a multitude of the team's skaters have blossomed into and embraced new roles to round out a potentially more complete team. Bridget Walter has hopped in on both special teams units, and Adrian transfer Kayla Murray has also stepped in to kill penalties. Collectively, four of five players on one of the team's power play units did not operate in that capacity for the Auggies last year. 

"That's been real exciting to see players step up and play on the power play, or play on the penalty kill, or contribute offensively that didn't consistently do it last year," McAteer said. "It's been really encouraging to see that in our program. We know that every game that someone can step up, and it's not just relying on one person or one line."

The team's new starting goaltender has also emerged as a somewhat unlikely hero. Entering the year, the Auggies were counting on senior Rebecca Sonnek to tend their net after a tremendous campaign last year. That plan changed quickly just 51 minutes and 57 seconds into the season when Sonnek went down with an injury in the team's opening night loss to St. Scholastica.

At that juncture, junior McKenna Manalli was thrust into unfamiliar territory as a full-time starter in goal, but the circumstances have hardly been overwhelming for her. Since coming in for Sonnek, Manalli has backstopped the Auggies to six consecutive victories while turning aside 94 percent of the shots she's faced. According to McAteer, that has helped to bring out the best in Augsburg as they've held opponents to just 17 shots per game and 1.29 goals per outing. 

"She's done an incredible job with very little game experience and no MIAC experience," McAteer said. "Every game she's gotten better and better. In her first two years she worked hard to fundamentally get better in terms of her technical skills, depth and rebound control. To see her step in and battle, and have her confidence grow each game, it's been so inspiring. Our team has rallied behind her while she's done everything we've asked of her."

That has helped to tie the total package together for the Auggie women, and it's a total package they'll need for this weekend's battles with the Tommies and beyond. 

Meanwhile, the Auggie men find themselves in search of a greater altitude under head coach Chris Brown. In the season following a close NCAA tournament loss to St. Norbert, the reigning MIAC tournament champions have started with eight straight wins and a spot at No. 4 in the latest D3hockey.com poll despite playing 75 percent of its games on the road. Those results have Brown believing the experience may pay off even further down the road. 

"We go into each season trying to get off to a fast start," Brown said. "This year has been so interesting because we've only had two home games. We've had two neutral site and four more road games. I think it's been good for us to have that challenge of playing in other rinks, and traveling, and getting off the bus. We knew going in that we'd have to be at our best because it would be a challenge playing so few home games in the first semester. I think when you look at that schedule, guys know it's not going to be easy. They've done a good job of preparing..... I didn't really know where we'd be because it was so tough. We had to grind out some tough, tough games."

Some of those tough games on the road included an overtime opener against Gustavus Adolphus and a come-from-behind victory over UW-River Falls that wasn't decided until the final minute of regulation. Lately, Brown feels his offense has taken over to alleviate some of that tight game pressure, with outputs of five goals or more in the last four games, and no game in that span has had a margin tighter than three goals. Senior Nate Flynn leads the way up front, and continues to torch opposing defenses with a team-high five goals after a confidence building 30 point campaign as a junior. In the eyes of Brown, his contributions extend well beyond that while also serving as the team's captain. 

"He prepares like a professional and really takes the game seriously," Brown said. "He's such a great example for our team and certainly has the ability to be so dangerous. Maybe not every shift where you're constantly on the edge of your seat, but you look up all of a sudden and has the puck on his stick with the game on the line and he comes through. He's earned everything he's gotten up to this point, and now that he's added the extra task of being a captain, he's done such a good job of being a leader while still producing."

But that's not all the Auggies have to offer. Reinforcements have come in by way of the transfer market and have been immediately productive while adding depth in an offense averaging nearly five goals per game. Junior Chandler Madry has been an instant impact playmaker since his arrival from Minnesota State-Mankato, with a team high 13 points, 10 of them assists. Fellow Division I transfer Alex Rodriguez(4-6-10), of RPI, and Jake Larson of St. Norbert have also made immediate contributions. However, almost everyone has done their share, as all 22 skaters to find the lineup this year hold at least one goal or assist, and 19 have scored for the Auggies this season including returner Luke Dietsch, who has added 12 points. 

Adding to the intrigue offensively is that Brown feels his team relies on its five-on-five play to generate a vast majority of its offensive pressure, which places an even greater importance on the team's established depth. 

"You don't do that without depth," Brown said. "Last game we had against St. Mary's, we were down 1-0 and our top lines weren't generating much offensively.  And then all of a sudden a guy who hasn't scored many goals, Paul Soubry, scores a nice one and gets us going and then on his next shift, creates a 2-on-1 and we score again. When you're getting that kind of depth, it just creates confidence for everyone else where as long as we stay in the game defensively, we'll break out at some point."

Shoring up the team in the back is the play of goaltender Nick Schmit, who has emerged from a two player tandem with graduated former All-American Jordyn Kaufer to shine in the spotlight this year. He has posted with a save percentage of 93.3 percent and a goals against average of 1.61 after taking the lion's share of the stretch run minutes last year. 

"I think that it ultimately helped Nick last year that when he came over from Stout, he had to battle with Kaufer who had a breakout year as a Junior. Those two pushed each other to a level that I don't know if they get there without each other.... Nick pushed himself so hard to earn the job down the stretch last year and it's carried over. You can see it in his preparation and in his focus that he wants to be the best. When you have that, and the guys have the confidence and want to play for him, it all goes from there."

The factors that have carried the recent success of the Auggies will have to be at their sharpest yet in the next two weeks, especially with a weekend series against rival St. Thomas at hand. 

"They're a program that over the years has just kept raising the bar, and raising the bar," Brown said. "They've carried the torch for this league, and it's a program that everyone still believes is capable of winning our league. Any time you play them, you're going to be up for it because they've been so good for so long, and that doesn't just go away."

An opportunity at redemption also awaits the Auggies the following week with a road non-conference pair against No. 1 St. Norbert, and as the Auggie men work through the meat of their schedule, they do so in hopes of becoming the next program to raise the bar in the MIAC.

 

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