Raiders skate on thin ice with numbers, but eager for new year
MEDFORD-RIB LAKE GIRLS HOCKEY PREVIEW
While they watched another megamerger take place to their immediate north and eliminate what was left of the Great Northern Conference during the off-season, the skaters in Medford’s girls hockey program soldier on in what is now its 11th varsity season.
The third year coaching duo of Jenna Wieting and Scott Brandner are crossing their fingers and knocking on wood that the Raiders’ 11 players will stay healthy during the 2019-20 season. They are also happy to see five freshmen bring an infusion of new talent to the squad, adding to a solid core of five returning letter winners.
“We’re a little low on numbers because we had a big senior class last year,” Wieting said last week. “So it makes practice a little bit tricky. We are down to three defensemen and just two lines and two goalies. We have 11 players, nine skaters, so that’s our main goal, to stay healthy.”
The Raiders got their new season started Monday with a 9-0 loss at Northland Pines, who was the undefeated champion (8-0) of the four-team Great Northern Conference last year. However, two of last year’s teams, the Rhinelander- and Lakeland-based co-ops, joined forces this year to form another of the monster coops that many say are plaguing the sport in Wisconsin and three teams wasn’t enough to keep the conference viable.
That development left the Medford-Rib Lake program needing to think outside the box to fill their schedule, but as it stands right now, the Raiders should play more than 20 games against teams from all corners of the state and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is a good thing.
But there is a noticeable drawback.
“Not having any conference is kind of rough for us because Emily (Schafer) and Alex (Nicks) both got conference awards last year and unfortunately that’s not on the table for them this year,” Wieting said. “Anything that we’re going to be looking at for awards is going to be all-state through the coaches association. That’s some really tough competition where you have big teams with a lot of girls who are able to work together and get a large amount of points. I really feel for our girls because I know that was a nice little cookie at the end of the season for them to be able to get a conference award when we’re not able to get that many wins.”
The Raiders got two wins last season over the Copper Country 19U team from Houghton-Hancock, Mich. to finish 2-20 overall and 0-9 in the GNC. The Raiders are aware there are going to be times again this year where it will be tough for them to match up with their opponents. But they feel that won’t always be the case.
The aforementioned Schafer and Nicks, both seniors, are two strong pieces to start with.
Schafer was a firstteam All-GNC selection at forward after two years as a second-team choice. She had a huge junior season with 26 goals and 10 as- sists and seven multi-goal games.
The Raiders held their collective breaths in April when Schafer went down with a knee injury in softball, but after an impressive recovery in the summer she was already back to playing volleyball by early September and hasn’t missed a beat in the first two weeks of hockey practice.
“We’re glad that she’s healthy and she’s skating,” Wieting said. “Her knee feels good. She’s taken a few spills with it already and it works fine getting up off the ice.”
Nicks enters her second year as the team’s full-time goaltender. She earned second-team All-GNC honors last year after putting up an .849 save percentage while facing an average of 50 shots per game. Nicks was named the team’s 2018-19 Most Valuable Player.
“She’s definitely learning every day and trying super hard every day” Wieting said. “She’s really hard on herself. She’s a really competitive gal. That’s good in that goalie position.”
Forward Kiersten Crass fills out the three-member senior class, while junior Kristen Brandner and sophomore Kyla Kennedy complete the list of returning letter winners. Junior Karli Higgins is back with the team after getting some ice time as a freshman.
To start the year, Schafer will be the center and Kennedy and Crass are the wings on the Raiders’ number-one offensive line. Kennedy spent the vast majority of her time last year on the defensive end.
“We’re going to start off with that the first couple games and we’ll see if we need to adjust,” Wieting said. “If it works the way we want it to, we’ll keep it. If we have to switch some different ones out, Scott and I have a few different ideas of what we would do if we needed to change people out. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some offense going with those three girls on a line together. They’re looking pretty good during practice. Their passing is going really well, their talking is really good so hopefully they’ll give us some pretty decent offense to start.”
Brandner leads the defense, which gains freshmen Delaney Hraby and Skylier Krueger, who are expected to be immediate major contributors.
“Delaney is a big, tall and lanky and is able to poke the puck away really easily,” Wieting said. “She plays her position really well. Skylier Krueger is very scrappy, gets in your face. She has a tendency to go out and want to do everything. As long as she can stay home, that will help us out in front of the net. Hopefully she can get in people’s way, lift sticks up and deflect passes.”
Discipline on defense is something the coaches have preached the past two years and Wieting said it is vital to the way the Raiders have to play. Keeping teams from scoring is goal number one. If they do that and take advantage of scoring chances when they present themselves, the Raiders can stay in games.
“We’re definitely looking to protect Alex at all costs,” she said. “We’re telling them to play it pretty safe. We don’t want anybody when we’re in our defensive zone overcommitting to anything and leaving us hang out to dry.”
Alyssa Brandner, Eryka Seidl and Saige Duesing fill out the freshman class. Duesing gives the Raiders a back-up option at goalie. The best thing about the freshman class, Wieting said, is that they have all played the game in the past. Those who played last year learned under current boys hockey head coach Galen Searles.
“They all know how to skate, which is good,” Wieting said. “We’ve had bigger numbers in years past but a lot of inexperience. So this year we’re trading that. We don’t have big numbers, but at least everybody has some experience. We’re thankful for that.”
The Raiders will play Northland Pines three times during the regular season, the Northern Edge twice as well as attending the Edge’s annual holiday tour- nament. They’ll head to Baraboo this weekend and will play in a tournament in late January hosted by the Beaver Dam-based co-op. Wieting was happy to see Beaver Dam break back out on its own after a year with the Fond du Lac mega-team.
And, the Raiders will again play several games against the Houghton-Hancock and Marquette, Mich. 19U teams they built fun relationships with last winter.
“We’re definitely still on the positive side,” said Wieting, last year’s state Section 2 Coach of the Year. “I’m just still thankful that we’re able to have a program and that we’re able to give girls the opportunity to play hockey. Hopefully we can have a few more girls that get recruited next year out of the high school.”