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Everything seems to be going in Minnesota’s direction heading into the 2000-01 season. For starters, the Gophers are the defending national champions. And now that women’s hockey is an official NCAA sport, the NCAA has decided to hold its first women’s Frozen Four at Minnesota’s own Mariucci Arena.

“It would be awesome to play in Mariucci for the NCAA championship, and hosting it will motivate us — especially our senior class,” said Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson. “Just because the event is in our rink doesn’t meant that we get a free pass to participate. Everyone will be ready for us this year. I guess we are no longer the underdog.”

Indeed, the Gophers should not expect a cakewalk during the regular season. Almost nobody in the WCHA graduated, and most teams have brought in another full class of talented recruits. With so many of the ECAC’s top players stolen by the U.S. National Team, the WCHA could be the conference to beat in just its second season. And here’s how the league shapes up as the regular season kicks off:

1. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Last season: 32-6-1, 21-2-1 WCHA; national champions Head Coach: Laura Halldorson Key Losses: Defenseman Winny Brodt; Forward Shannon Kennedy Players to Watch: Goalie Erica Killewald; Forwards Nadine Muzerall, Ambria Thomas, Laura Slominski, Ronda Curtin and Tracy Engstrom

The defending champs are clearly the team to beat. Minnesota is the deepest team in the country, and the Gophers could overpower some of the younger programs in the WCHA.

For starters, Minnesota has five returning 50-point scorers at forward. Senior Nadine Muzerall (49g, 28a) was the nation’s leading goal-scorer last season, and she has two talented linemates in and Tracy Engstrom (23g, 30a) and Laura Slominski (25g, 34a). The second line isn’t too shabby either with the likes of Ambria Thomas (25g, 37a) and Ronda Curtin (26g, 27a). Add highly-touted rookie La Toya Clarke to that mix and coach Laura Halldorson has enough scoring punch to spread over three or four lines.

“Muzzy led the nation in goals, but those other players contributed a great deal to our offensive attack,” Halldorson said in reference to the 50-point scorers. “They are all unselfish players, which is important for us to be successful. I feel that we will have more depth than ever before, as well as balanced scoring.”

The only setback Minnesota suffered over the summer was at the blue line, when standout defenseman Winny Brodt decided to join the U.S. National Team. But senior Courtney Kennedy (16g, 17a), who has played for Halldorson since they were both at Colby in 1996, will be the veteran leader of a still-talented defensive corps.

“Winny has done a great job for us and we will definitely miss her this season–both on and off the ice,” Halldorson said. “She was very effective because she could play defense, handle the puck, skate, and create offense very well. Courtney Kennedy will have an even bigger role with us than she has in the past and I look for her to have her best season yet.”

Playing alongside Kennedy will be seniors Kelly Olson (10g, 13a), Emily Buchholz (12g, 12a) and Angela Borek (10g, 11a), as well as Bethany Petersen and three other rookie defensemen.

Senior goaltender Erica Killewald is one of the most reliable netminders in the country. Killewald, the Most Valuable Player of last season’s AWCHA national championship, will be backed up by freshman Stephanie Johnson.

2. Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs

Last season: 25-5-3, 21-1-2 WCHA; reached AWCHA semifinals Head Coach: Shannon Miller Key Losses: none Players to Watch: Goalie Tuula Puptti; Forwards Jenny Schmidgall, Maria Roth, Hanne Sikio and Erika Holst

The snowy city of Duluth may be quite a distance from the beaten path, but it is also where Bulldogs coach Shannon Miller is assembling the most international team in women’s hockey. With three recruits from Europe and two more from Canada, Minnesota-Duluth has plenty of international experience to rely on as it attempts to improve on last year’s very productive inaugural season, which includes the first-ever WCHA conference championship.

But the Bulldogs will start the season without their top player, junior center Jenny Schmidgall (41g, 52a), who is pregnant. Schmidgall hopes to bring her incredible stickwork and scoring ability back to the ice sometime after New Year’s.

In the meantime, Miller can rely on former Olympians like forwards sophomores Maria Rooth (37g, 31a) and Erika Holst (25g, 25a). They are both used to burying the puck, whether it be in Duluth or abroad, as are international players like sophomores Hanne Sikio (25g, 39a) and Michelle McAteer (17g, 10a). Rookies Sanna Peura of Team Finland and Sheena Podovinnikoff from Saskatchewan should also contribute offensively.

The talented cast of Bulldog defensemen is led by Brittny Ralph (9g, 22a), the squad’s lone senior. Sophomore Navada Russell (5g, 25a) will see plenty of shifts at the blue line, as will rookies Tricia Guest of Saskatchewan and Satu Kiipeli from the Finnish Junior National Team.

The defense will have plenty of help between the pipes, which will be manned by sophomore Tuula Puputti (an Olympian for Finland in 1998) and freshman Patricia Sautter, who played for Team Switzerland last year.

3. Wisconsin Badgers

Last season: 19-14-2, 15-18-1 WCHA; reached WCHA semifinals Head Coach: Trina Bourget Key Losses: none Players to Watch: Goalie Jackie MacMillan, Defenseman Sis Paulsen, Forwards Kendra Antony and Kelly Kegley

With former coach Julie Sasner leaving Madison to join Ben Smith’s staff on the U.S. National team, former assistant Trina Bourget will be the interim head coach in 2000-01 for the Badgers. Bourget inherits a talented young team that has a good chance to break into USCHO’s weekly poll this season.

Perhaps the top reason for that potential is sophomore netminder Jackie MacMillan. MacMillan, the first-team All-WCHA goaltender, participated on the U.S. National Under-22 Team over the summer. Sophomore Jen Neary is a reliable backup between the pipes.

MacMillan gets plenty of help from her defensive unit, which is led by sophomore Sis Paulsen (17g, 27a), who finished fourth in the nation in scoring for defensemen. Sophomore Kerry Weiland (10g, 25a) also contributes at the blueline with impressive stickwork. Sophomore Gretchen Anderson (0g, 6a) and rookie Nicole Uliasz should also play regularly.

For scoring, Wisconsin will look to sophomores Kendra Antony (22g, 23a) and Kelly Kegley (26g, 19a), both of whom had impressive rookie campaigns a year ago. Junior Michelle Sikich (18g, 20a) is the most experienced player on the squad and rookies Meghan Hunter and Karen Rickard, both of whom are from Canada, should provide scoring depth right away.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

Last season: 8-26-3, 6-25-3 WCHA; reached WCHA semifinals Head Coach: Jackie Barto Key Losses: none Players to Watch: Forward Corinne Rosen

The Buckeyes struggled for much of their inaugural season, but they came on at the end to tie for fourth place in the regular season and to win the consolation game in the conference tournament. With a year of experience and a new class of recruits, Ohio State will try to enter the upper division of the WCHA.

The biggest additions to the 2000-01 Buckeyes are at the blue line, where coach Jackie Barto has brought in a pair of talented freshmen in Kelli Halcisak, a member of last year’s U.S. Select National Team, and Emma Laaksonen, who played for Team Finland at the 1998 Olympics. Halcisak and Laaksonen will join a defensive corps led by sophomore Emily Hudak (6g, 6a).

On offense, junior forward Corinne Rosen (16g, 17a) is the team’s leading scorer and most experienced player. Rosen, who transferred to Columbus from Providence along with Barto two years ago, does much of her scoring with speed. Sophomores Lindsey Ogren (10g, 5a) and Shana Frost (11g, 15a) must add scoring depth if the Buckeyes are to be competitive this year.

Goaltenders Melissa Glaser and April Stojak should platoon between the pipes for the Buckeyes again this season.

5. St. Cloud State Huskies

Last season: 13-19-3, 6-15-3 WCHA; eliminated in WCHA first round Head Coach: Kerry Brodt Key Losses: none Players to Watch: Defenseman Fiona McLeod and Forward Jennifer Swanson

The Huskies will look to improve under coach Kerry Brodt and challenge Ohio State for entry into the WCHA upper division.

The Huskies should be strong defensively now that junior Fiona McLeod (18g, 12a), the team’s leading scorer last season, has moved to the blue line. McLeod will be joined by a pair of talented rookie defensemen in Kobi Kawamoto and Leanne Perrin. Kawamoto has experience on the Canadian Under-22 National Team, while Perrin spent the last two seasons training with the Olympic Oval High Performance program in Calgary.

Brodt was able to move McLeod to defense because she has more depth at forward this season. Sophomore Jennifer Swanson (11g, 18a) and junior Amanda Presenger (8g, 10a), Mcleod’s teammate at the University of Wisconsin-Superior prior to St. Cloud, are the most experienced scorers. Freshman Ricki-Lee Doyle, who joined Perrin at the Olympic Oval High Performance program after playing for Team Alberta in 1999, should be a scoring threat immediately.

Sophomore goaltender Laura Gieselman will guard the crease, as will rookie Ellen Brinkman.

6. Bemidji State Beavers

Last season: 15-18-2, 5-17-2 WCHA; eliminated in WCHA first round Head Coach: Ruthann Cantile Key Losses: none Players to Watch: Forwards Kerri McEwen, Lill Raynard and Alicia Kinsman

The Beavers have plenty of room for improvement, but at least they know how to score. Sophomore forwards Kerri McEwen (19g, 15a), Lill Raynard (17g, 19a), and Alicia Kinsman (15g, 19a) all had more than 30 points in their rookie campaigns last season. Sophomores Amy Shepler (13g, 13a) and Kristie Hofer (10g, 10a) are balanced scorers who should contribute offensively.

Sophomore defenseman Lisa Peters (13g, 14a) is the leader at the blue line, while sophomore netminder Bre Dedrickson will be the last line of defense. Bemidji State has a year of experience under its belt, but it will be hard for the Beavers to break .500 unless they get significant performances from their small freshman class.

7. Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks

Last season: 8-25-2, 3-19-2 WCHA; eliminated in WCHA first round Head Coach: Todd Carroll Key Losses: Forward Kim Corona Players to Watch: Forward Tristin Stephenson

The Mavericks have everybody back but a long way to go to become competitive in the WCHA. Sophomore forward Tristin Stephenson (15g, 17a) is the most experienced scorer, and she will need help from juniors Ryann Geldner (10g, 22a) and Ashleigh Miller (14g, 6a).

Junior Mandy Krause (3g, 6a) is the top defenseman, while junior Jennie Padgett should see the bulk of minutes between the pipes.