Friday, October 4, 2013

New Beginning, Same Old Place

Micayla Catanzariti and her teammates will look to take two from Vermont this time around

NCAA Women (0-0-0, 0-0-0 CHA) vs. Vermont (0-0-0, 0-0-0 Hockey East)

Gutterson Field House; Burlington, VT

Friday, October 4th at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, October 5th at 2:30 p.m.

Friday: TYT live blog (free), UVM video (free), UVM live stats (free); Saturday: TYT live blog (free), UVM video (free), UVM live stats (free).

The optimism of a new season is one of the truly enjoyable things about sports. Only one team per year wins the national championship, so for all others, this time of year is a chance at redemption for whatever went wrong last time around. Everyone begins 0-0-0 and, in theory, has an equal shot at being the best team in the country for 2013-2014.

Last year, shockingly, first-year NCAA program Penn State kept their claim to the "best" label past opening day, thanks to a 5-3 upset at Vermont that saw Shannon Yoxheimer and Micayla Catanzariti each score twice. Want to re-live it once more? Gladly:

The Nittany Lions came back to Earth almost immediately, as the Catamounts won the next day's rematch 3-1. Thirty-three games later, PSU was 7-26-2 and out of the first round of the CHA playoffs. Without question, it was an outstanding season in terms of laying the program's foundation, but at the same time, nobody plays hockey with the goal of winning one-fifth of the time.

However, the first weekend in October - a fresh start - is here once again, and it brings Penn State back to the same spot as one year ago - Gutterson Field House in Burlington, VT and two dates with UVM.

For all of the great things about the opening of a new campaign, one thing the situation lacks is a good way to write a pregame or preseason post. There's sort of a formula to it: here's how Team X did last season, here's what they lost, here's what they added, here's a prediction that is only ever incrementally different from the previous year's finish, and based mostly on an arbitrary assessment of the lost vs. added equation. It's far from ideal in many, many ways, but at the same time, nobody has developed a better approach to the task yet.

The situation is exacerbated in the case of Penn State, a second-year NCAA program that famously had 17 freshmen last season. There's simply very little in the way of formula that can tell us what to expect right now.

We do know that those freshmen have become 15 sophomores (Katie Zinn and Taylor McGee left the program in the spring). They're still the core of the team and still young, but now one year deep. In 2012-2013, star players emerged from that class like sniper Yoxheimer, blood-and-guts blueliner Jordin Pardoski, silky-handed Hannah Hoenshell, dangerous bundle of energy Jill Holdcroft and steady puck mover Paige Jahnke. Catanzariti and Birdie Shaw added grit, while Emily Laurenzi and Jeanette Bateman added dependability. Overseeing it all was a small, but vital group of upperclass leaders, including clutch stopper Nicole Paniccia, ACHA original Lindsay Reihl, rough-and-tumble Jenna Welch and, of course, all-compete captain Taylor Gross.

Shannon Yoxheimer scored PSU's first NCAA goal last season at Vermont

Now thrown into the mix is a highly-decorated freshman class including Laura Bowman and Amy Petersen, linemates who led Minnetonka High School to an unprecedented three Minnesota AA titles in a row, two-way forward Sarah Nielsen, and Kelly Seward, an unflappable defender who will help correct a size deficit PSU frequently faced last season.

The unstated, but ever-present, variable in all of this is competition. No matter how you slice and dice potential lineups, there's no getting around the fact that several very good hockey players - a couple of whom will have been every-game contributors in NCAA year one - will be sitting in the stands each time out.

Put it all together and you have... well, something. Almost certainly a better team than a year ago, with most players a year older and key issues involving scoring depth and defensive matchups addressed in recruiting. How much better? "Well, we played them tougher than last year" better? Second-year NCAA Lindenwood better, as the back half of 2012-2013 saw LU start to figure out how to beat established CHA teams? Something more than that? We're about to find out, and that's part of what makes the occasion so much fun.

Vermont, as a long-standing varsity team, is a little bit more of a known quantity, yet one that still shares plenty of common ground with its opponent. Following the embarrassment of allowing a new NCAA team its first win, the Cats wound up 8-21-4 overall, with a quick exit from the Hockey East quarterfinals. While that doesn't sound like much on the surface, it did represent progress, as it was the program's first-ever postseason appearance in 16 varsity seasons.

Like Penn State, UVM didn't lose much. Star goalie Roxanne Douville is back for her senior year, while offensive leader Brittany Zuback (her 14 goals and 26 points were both tops on the Catamounts) is a junior. Vermont scored just 2.15 goals per game last year, only slightly better than PSU's 1.97 number, and will therefore look to Zuback, Amanda Pelkey, Klara Myren and a strong group of seven freshmen to up their production, and to a re-tooled defense to lighten the 36.15 shot-per-game burden placed on Douville. Vermont isn't a particularly deep team (their roster numbers just 21) so consistency up and down the lineup will be vital if growth is to continue in head coach Jim Plumer's second year in charge.

Some might cynically suggest, as in the case of Penn State as well I suppose, that bringing back largely the same roster from a losing team isn't a recipe for greater success. However, the limited data looks good so far, as a Zuback hat trick powered a 5-1 exhibition win over Nepean last weekend, after UVM lost their tune-up for PSU a year ago by a 2-1 count to the University of Montreal. Plumer also begs to differ. He clearly likes what he has and claims that several key players have had phenomenal offseasons.

In short, both teams, partly fueled by the optimism allowed by a clean slate, think they're better than the last time they saw each other. Both teams, however, are also looking for tangible evidence of it, namely an improvement on the previous-meeting split. Here's hoping that it's the Nittany Lions keeping the dream of a perfect season alive into the season's second weekend.

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