ECA Stars girls hockey coach Tom Bernhardt knows he’s got some special players at his disposal, all of whom have had more than their fair share of varsity experience.
He has the state’s reigning offensive player of the year in senior Abigail Stow. Alongside her is first-team all-state winger Ava Kison, who can score goals as well as anybody in Wisconsin. And in back, Minnesota State recruit Charlotte Akervik and four-year player Brooklynn Arbs head up the defense.
Those players are more than luxuries on the ice. Ironically, though, Bernhardt’s biggest area of enthusiasm early in the season stems from when those players are off the ice.
The Stars have a big enough roster full of capable players to not only have two lines but four and possibly five.
“We haven’t had that depth you need to keep your top lines fresh, especially when you get in games that are special teams kinds of games where your top kids are on the ice for 10 minutes of a 17-minute hockey period,” Bernhardt said. “It’s good to give them a little breather.”
ECA has 27 skaters listed on its roster and for the first time in program history can field a JV team.
And most all of them can contribute.
A fourth line isn’t there just for rest purposes. The younger players on those units can get pucks to the net and keep them out of their own.
The usual suspects are scoring — Stow and Kison both have 15 points. But it’s a balanced act. Nine other players have a point through the first five games of the season.
“I think the biggest thing for us is the competition we’ve seen in practice where you’ve got your top two lines that are pretty established and then you have a new group of kids come in to create a very competitive situation,” Bernhardt said.
In the past, the Stars had to show their hand early. Because frankly, what they had in early November was what they’d have throughout the rest of the season.
Not this year. The depth allows for more focus in practice, leading to sharper execution and more X’s and O’s to work on throughout the year.
“You have to make sure you’re working hard every practice and every drill,” Arbs said. “We have a lot of kids on the team, so if you’re not practicing hard you’re not going to play in the game.”
With Akervik out until at least conference play — she tore her ACL in May — the Stars have had to take a by-committee by approach to defense. And they have a freshman goaltender, Naomi Stow, in between the pipes.
But early on, they’ve allowed just six goals against some strong competition.
“I think from what I’ve seen so far we’ve done well in just about every aspect,” Stow said. “We haven’t really worked on offensive stuff yet. If we take care of the defensive zone the offensive zone will take care of itself, is what coach always says. And I agree.”
Freshman Kalie Gruhlke has stepped up to fill that fourth defenseman spot in Akervik’s absence. She’s done so well that Bernhardt will be able to roll with a five-defensemen look once Akervik returns.
The Stars are ranked second in the latest state poll behind Hudson. They took a big step forward when they won the Gobbler Tournament at D.C. Everest over Thanksgiving break, knocking off defending state champion Central Wisconsin Storm in the process.
It’s a tournament that has always given the Stars a little bit of trouble, but beating the Storm and another state contender, University School of Milwaukee, raised expectations for the Stars.
“It definitely gives us a lot of confidence, because we’ve never really done well there,” Kison said. “But it showed we can be one of the best teams in the state this year.”
With the returners back and strong play from underclassmen, the makeup is there for a historic season. In each of the past three seasons, this team has improved its win total. The moment is here. The Stars are ready to go even further.
“This is a group, though, that the leadership is there, they’ve been in our program for three or four years and have progressed as a team,” Bernhardt said. “I think they know what they have to do to take that next step in the postseason and in conference play.”