Nate Schmidt admits he didn't see it coming. The Gophers defenseman knew that goaltender Kent Patterson left a gaping void in the net when he completed his eligibility last season, and he certainly didn't anticipate that freshman Adam Wilcox would fill it all by himself.
Despite Wilcox's impressive body of work at South St. Paul High School and in the U.S. Hockey League, Schmidt remained doubtful -- until Wilcox shattered his expectations.
"You see an All-American goalie leave last year and you say, 'How is a freshman going to handle this?' " Schmidt said. "He's handled it extremely well. He's really playing beyond his years."
Heading into this weekend's series at first-place St. Cloud State, Wilcox leads the WCHA with a 1.70 goals-against average and 17 victories. He is ranked among the top 10 nationally in victories (second), goals-against average (sixth), shutouts (tied for fifth) and minutes played (10th). Since his second start of the season on Oct. 20, Wilcox has been in net for nearly every minute of a 16-3-4 run that includes three shutouts.
While that has surprised some, everything has played out just as Wilcox envisioned. After sharing time with junior Michael Shibrowski to start the season, he thrived when Shibrowski was sidelined by an injury and firmly established himself as the go-to netminder for the nation's No. 1 team.
Despite the heavy workload, coach Don Lucia said he expects Wilcox to play every game the rest of the season. The goalie said he feels no fatigue, particularly given the way things have gone.
"I definitely had confidence," said Wilcox, who has played 1,480 minutes. "If you want to do something, you have to know you can. I had a good junior career, and I felt ready to come into college and have success right from the start."
Goaltending coach Justin Johnson came to understand the rigors of the WCHA during his days as a Gophers goalie from 2001 to '05. He thought it would take time for Wilcox to grow into the position, and he said it is unusual for a freshman to excel so quickly in the league. This season, however, four of the top 10 goalies in the conference are freshmen, including Stephon Williams of Minnesota State Mankato, who is second behind Wilcox in goals-against average.
Wilcox came to the Gophers with a desire to improve his technique and a strong belief in himself, which has allowed him to flourish.
"He's approached things in a workmanlike way, trying to learn each day," Johnson said. "And that is the secret to establishing your game at the WCHA level. In his mind, this is what was going to happen. He just worked hard and expected things to go like this."
Good act to follow
Wilcox's cousin Alex Stalock, a former goaltender at Minnesota Duluth now playing for San Jose's minor league affiliate in Worcester, Mass., introduced Wilcox to the blocker and pads. Wilcox's family had a mini-rink in its basement, where the cousins often played. One day when Stalock wanted to try shooting, he put 5-year-old Adam in the net.
After a couple of weekends of stopping pucks in the basement, Wilcox asked his dad, John, if he could try playing goalie in a game. At South St. Paul -- where he also was a quarterback on the football team -- he didn't have a goalie coach and relied upon his athletic ability rather than technique. Wilcox refined his game during two USHL seasons and was Tri-City's MVP last season.
Johnson liked the way Wilcox could quickly read where a shot was going, and he could see him rapidly integrating new skills as he learned more about the position. Lucia liked the durability he showed in the USHL, which made him think Wilcox could make an impact as a rookie.
"It was a big question mark when we lost Kent," Lucia said. "We weren't going to have a goaltender with really any collegiate experience. But we felt confident when we recruited Adam that he was the type of guy who would be a No. 1 goaltender, that could play almost every game."
Wilcox said that working with Johnson has helped him improve substantially since the beginning of the season. Johnson noted that the goalie now uses sound technique to stop many pucks, but his athletic ability allows him to make saves in a variety of ways, keeping him unpredictable.
Schmidt said that as a defenseman, Wilcox's consistent performance gives him peace of mind. "Knowing he's backstopping you, you can go out and make plays and not worry," he said. "He's a real mature kid, and he knows how to handle pressure. That's a big thing for a freshman."
Mindful of the grind of a long season, Lucia is giving Wilcox some lighter practices and extra days off to keep him fresh for the critical games to come. Wilcox's expectations of himself have only gotten higher, a good sign for the Gophers.
"I feel great," he said. "This is the part of the season I love, and this is why we worked out all summer, to be ready for this. I'm amped."