It’s a new season, a new arena and a new look, but for the most part it’s the same Penn State women’s ice hockey team.
While the men, and the new Pegula Ice Arena, have been getting the Lion’s share of the attention, it will be the Penn State women, who will hit the ice first this fall.
The Nittany Lions open their season with games Friday and Saturday at Vermont, the puck dropping at 7 p.m. for the opener, and there will be plenty of familiar faces in the lineup.
After spending the first season as a Division I program taking their lumps with a roster filled with freshman, the team returned a little more seasoned this fall.
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“Everything we did last year, all the challenges we faced, all the adversity that we dealt with has made this group incredibly resilient and incredibly gritty,” coach Josh Brandwene said. “That’s to their credit as individual student-athletes and collectively as a team. And this is the the next step in the process. We’re still young, we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. We feel like we have something to prove this year.”
The Nittany Lions, who struggled through a 7-26-2 season, bring back 24 of the team’s 27 members — and still only nine are juniors or older.
“The first practice last year to this year was like night and day,” said goaltender Nicole Paniccia, one of the few seniors. “We look like a totally different squad out there.”
The biggest change is of course the home ice, with the new Pegula Ice Arena now open. The team moved in Sept. 9, has been practicing there officially since Sept. 21 and after spending the first two weekends of the season on the road have the home opener Oct. 18 against Union.
The arena has been the talk of campus, and the team is expecting a much bigger following. They also are hearing from old friends — and new ones who approach them on campus — who are energized for the coming season.
“All my friends say, ‘Oh I’ve got to see a game,’ so there’s a big push to want to see the rink and see hockey,” Paniccia said. “Hockey’s making a huge stance on this campus now and it’s not — obviously our school’s a big football school, but hockey’s getting in the mix now.”
Paniccia will be counted on heavily this season, although it will be hard to top how large the load she carried last year. She finished with six of the team’s seven wins and both ties, stopped 92.8 percent of the shots she faced and recorded 1,028 saves for the season. The save total was second-best in all of Division I.
“She has a tremendous work ethic, she’s always looking to make whatever little improvements she can,” Brandwene said of a veteran, who spent her first two seasons at Connecticut. “Certainly her results last year speak for themselves, in terms of not only what she did statistically for us, but the leadership and experience she provided as a veteran at the Division I level on a young team.”
The Nittany Lions also bring back 99 percent of its offense from last season.
Shannon Yoxheimer led the team in scoring, with 14 goals and 17 assists, while Taylor Gross had seven goals and 15 assists and Jess Desorcie had five goals and 13 assists.
“Last year was definitely a learning experience, but in a positive way,” Yoxheimer said. “Because of so much that we learned last year being so young, we have all of that experience and knowledge from last season, and also we learned a lot from our seniors now.”
State College graduate Jill Holdcroft is another key cog, sitting second on the team with 10 goals and leading everyone with six power-play scores. Her scrappy play gives the team energy, and having a local product with plenty of friends also helps drum up support.
“Anybody who's seen Jill play knows she only has one speed, and that's GO in caps lock. So she's fabulous in terms of her energy, she blocks shots, she kills penalties, she's a fun hockey player to watch. Certainly the added bonus of her ties to the local community I think is really something special.”
The Nittany Lions are hoping for a similar start to this season that they got last year — winning the season opener 5-3 against the Catamounts.