By: Sean Flanery, GoPSUsports.com Student
UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. - After a season filled with firsts, the Nittany Lions dropped a hard-fought series in the opening round of the College Hockey America playoffs. Now, with a bounty of lessons learned during their inaugural season, Penn State will turn their focus to the 2013-14 season.
"I'm really proud of the effort that this group put in and the way they battled all year," said Penn State head coach Josh Brandwene. "They got better and better as the year went on. We said we wanted to play our best hockey at the end of the year and despite the heartbreaking result in the CHA playoffs they played their best hockey of the year at the end of the year. I think that is something that's going to be a real pay it forward thing for us as we move into next season."
At the start of its inaugural season, Penn State (7-26-2) featured a team comprised of 17 freshmen, a few transfer players, and a number of players from the club hockey team. Despite the youth and lack of Division I experience, the Lions battled all season and stuck to the systematic plan Brandwene developed at the start of the season and the improvements on the ice became apparent.
"The level of effort and improvement is phenomenal and that is to their credit as people and hockey players," said Brandwene. "[Our players] are so coachable, so willing to learn, and that paid big dividends for that group this year. It will pay even bigger dividends next year with hard work moving forward."
Now, as the tide turns and the Blue and White turn their focus to a new season and a clean slate, the team has a lot to look forward to. Next year, the Blue and White will feature a group of 17 sophomores, which now have the experience out on the ice that will prove to be pivotal.
One freshman in particular that played a vital role in the Lions' success this season was Shannon Yoxheimer, who recently earned All-CHA rookie team honors for her outstanding play this season. The young forward led the Lions in points this year with 31 (14 G, 17 A). The Michigan native said she couldn't have received the same experience on the ice with any other program besides Penn State and she is already looking forward to next season.
"I think the experience that we gained from this year will definitely help," said Yoxheimer. "We are going to start off with that experience rather than have to gain that throughout the year and we still have more to gain, but we have some experience under our belts and that always helps with everyone's game."
Another bright spot for Penn State will be the return of some of their veteran leadership positions that had previously transferred from Connecticut, as net-minder Nicole Paniccia, along with forwards Jenna Welch and Taylor Gross are only juniors.
"I've always been younger on teams," said Paniccia. "I have a really late birthday, so I've been kind of the baby on the team, so I knew I was going to have to step up. It was really my first time being a leader on a team and being one of the older girls, so I think the biggest thing for me this year was to step up my leadership role."
Now, with experience, a returning group that has a year of captaincy under the belts, and a solid core of youthful talent, the Lions are poised to come back next year with even higher expectations. In addition to the experience the group gained this past season, Brandwene and his staff will have the luxury of adding a very talented recruiting class.
The Lions will be adding four new skaters to the roster next season. Penn State will introduce three new forwards in Sarah Nielsen from Edina High School and teammates Laura Bowman and Amy Petersen from the Minnesota AA High School State Championship team Minnetonka High School. In addition to the highly coveted offensive firepower Penn State will be adding, they will also be welcoming a 5-foot-9 defensive presence in Kelly Seward from Williamsville, N.Y.
"They're great players and even better people that are going to fit in so well in our culture," said Brandwene. "It's just an ideal situation for this program to have a nucleus, a great core, and such wonderful people and talent newcomers joining us that, I'm counting the days until we get started."
A talented core is in place that posses an unmatched level of team chemistry, a new recruiting class full of talent is on the way, and a brand new state-of-the-art facility in Pegula Ice Arena that will be opening before next season, are all things for the Nittany Lion faithful to get excited about.
Penn State seemingly has all of the pieces in place for what could be an excellent and successful second season. While many will never forget the memories that were made both on the road and at home in the Greenberg Ice Pavilion during the inaugural season, it's hard to not focus on the very bright future ahead for women's hockey in Happy Valley.
"We've got a perfect storm coming together here with a great foundation, a great nucleus that has outstanding leadership, now has experience and add tremendous skill, with this recruiting class coming in," said Brandwene. "I'm really looking forward to next year."