With 20 players on his roster, this is the largest team Marshall girls' hockey coach Kevin Schroeder has ever had. And needing to replace just two players from last year's team, it's also very experienced.
As the Tigers have been preparing for today's 7 p.m. season opener against Fairmont at the Lockwood Motors Ice Arena in Marshall, there's been an unspoken understanding between players and coaches of what's expected of the team and what it can accomplish if it plays to its potential.
"You can see the confidence," Schroeder said. "They come in and they know the system, everything we're doing. And it's nice to see them helping the newer kids understand it and show them what it takes to work hard at the high school level. You can definitely see there's some maturity there with the returners."
The Tigers went 10-12-1 last season as a young crop of players gained valuable experience. Now, with the largest team Marshall has had under Schroeder, they hope to not just continue developing depth, but to achieve a winning record and contend for both the Section 3A and Southwest Conference titles.
Marshall returns virtually all of its top goal scorers from last year, including forwards Miranda Fischer, Hanna Peterson and Lizzie Archbold, all of whom scored eight or more goals during the 2011-12 season. Junior forward Megan Vogl, sophomore Jessica Blanchard and freshman Mikenna Radke, who was named the team's Rookie of the Year last season, will be joined by a few other younger players who will look to improve the team's offensive attack.
Schroeder said one of the team's main focuses this year will be to increase its goal production, and without a single senior among the forwards, it will be a group that will have plenty of time to jell together. He said this is a group that has been working hard to make sure it finds the back of the net more frequently.
"We weren't a real high-scoring team last year, I think we only have 40 goals total from the whole team," Schroeder said. "We got a lot of shots in a lot of games, but we just didn't find a way to put them in. That's one thing that we have to work on this year. We've been working on that in practice by practicing with a higher tempo, taking shots at a faster pace."
In goal, the Tigers will skate out two familiar faces from last year in junior Sierra Wagner and freshman Morgan Morrill. The pair split time in net last season, and Schroeder said there could be more of the same this year.
"Hopefully we can get one who steps up, otherwise we'll just develop both goalies at the same time," Schroeder said. "If one goes down, we know the other will step in there and do just as good."
The Tigers sport eight defensemen this year, led by senior Morgan Larsen. Larsen and Brooke Louwagie are the two lone seniors on the Marshall roster, but while Larsen brings in plenty of experience, this is Louwagie's first year on the team. Schroeder said Louwagie worked with the Tigers this summer and should be able to provide a solid contribution to the team's defense.
Marshall was in some tight battles last season, including with conference rival Luverne. The Tigers tied the Cardinals in their first meeting of the season, then ended the season with a 4-3 loss in the second round of the Section 3A tournament. It's a loss that didn't sit well with the club, and one that has fueled the Tigers to work hard to improve up until the start of this season.
"The girls are excited to get started," Schroeder said. "We talked about the end of last year when they started to come together at the end and then lost a close game in the section tournament to Luverne, only a one-goal game, and that was a game we thought we should have won. That kept them hungry for this season and gave them some motivation to work harder."