St. Thomas and Hamline. Hamline and St. Thomas.
The two St. Paul foes battled throughout last season for MIAC and national prominence in Division III women’s hockey, and if the polls are any indication, we’ll see the Tommies and Pipers competing at that level again.
As the Division III schedule opens this weekend – Hamline visits Adrian (Mich.) on Friday, while St. Thomas is at St. Scholastica on Saturday – both schools are expected to be contenders to reach the Frozen Four, as they did last winter.
Hamline, which beat St. Thomas 3-0 in the NCAA semifinals at St. Thomas Ice Arena before falling 4-0 to Plattsburg State in the title game, is ranked No. 2 behind Plattsburg in the U.S. College Hockey Online preseason poll, while St. Thomas checks in at No. 5.
In the MIAC preseason coaches poll, the Tommies are picked to edge the Pipers. St. Thomas received 77 points to top Hamline by one vote, while both received five first-place votes. Last season, the Tommies won the regular-season title and defeated the Pipers in the MIAC tournament final.
“We’re really excited about the potential of our group,’’ Hamline coach Natalie Darwitz said. “It looks good on paper, and now it’s applying it and translating it to on-ice action.’’
The Pipers, who were the first MIAC team to reach an NCAA final last season, boast senior forward Bre Simon, the Laura Hurd Award winner as the nation’s top Division III player last season. The Elk River native led the nation in scoring last year with 27 goals and 37 assists. Her 75 career goals are only three off the MIAC record.
“It’s very comforting knowing every year she’s exceeded expectations for our team,’’ Darwitz said. “Now, in her last year, the choice is, ‘How do you want to go out, Bre? Don’t let the pressure get to you. Go out there and do your thing and play your game.’ It’s great to have one of the best players in the nation on our squad.’’
St. Thomas went into the NCAA tournament last year as the No. 1 overall seed and earned the right to host the Frozen Four. The Tommies, however, had to play without All-America goalie Kenzie Torpy in the semifinal against Hamline. Torpy has graduated, but Eryn Cooley, took the net after Torpy’s injury, returns with valuable experience.
The Tommies return 20 players from last season, led by senior forward Rachel Werdin, who had 17 goals and 10 assists. Werdin suffered a knee injury last week and might miss the season’s first month.
“We’ve got a nice group coming back, especially up front,’’ Tommies coach Tom Palkowski said. “We lost two key defensemen, so we’ll see how we can find some depth back there.’’
Augsburg was picked to finish third in the MIAC, followed by Gustavus and Concordia (Moorhead) in the top five.
Darwitz expects a competitive, balanced league.
“It’s going to be a different type of race this year, but it’s going to be tight,’’ she said. “I think you’re going to see the middle of the MIAC really jumble up and give the top-end teams some games.’’
Palkowski agreed. “Top to bottom, it’s probably the best conference in the country,’’ he said. “You decide to take a night off, you’re going to pay the price.’’
MIAC preseason coaches poll
(first-place votes in parentheses)
St. Thomas (5) 77
Hamline (5) 76
St. Mary’s 38
St. Benedict 26
St. Catherine 24
St. Olaf 9