In the professional ranks, expansion teams follow roughly the same path, typically hitting many roadblocks before finding sustained success.
Penn State’s women’s hockey team, now midway through its second season, has traveled a similar route, with a 11-44-4 record since joining Division I. Unlike pro organizations, though, the team cannot build through a draft.
Instead, the Nittany Lions are building their future with recruiting. And if this and last season are any indication, a large focus has been placed on snagging recruits from Minnesota.
In the 2012-13 season, the Lions announced four commitments, three of whom were from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. In November, the team announced its third signing class. Four of them are from Minnesota, too, while the other two are from Colorado and Ontario, respectively.
“You’ve got incredible hockey being played in the great state of Minnesota,” Penn State coach Josh Brandwene said.
He went on to say that the Minnesotans on the team have represented “what this program is all about.”
Assistant coach Gina Kearns said she and Brandwene went to Minnesota on their first recruiting trip because it was important to leave a footprint in the state early on.
It did not take long to make an impression. They brought in Laura Bowman and Amy Petersen from Minnetonka High School and Sarah Nielsen from Edina High School before the current season. Both schools are in the Minneapolis suburbs.
Minnetonka won the last three Class AA state titles, while Edina was the AA runner-up twice with Nielsen on the team.
“Amy and Laura were huge pick-ups for us, and Sarah Nielsen, as well,” Kearns said. “We have ties to their programs, and it’s good for us to be out there and see them, and then it’s good for our kids to go back home and give some good stuff about us. It’s kind of a dual process, and we love it out there.”
Hockey is popular in Minnesota and the state has women’s hockey in the high schools. The number of players is what Minnetonka coach Eric Johnson said brings the Lions in to recruit.
“I think for Penn State there’s just so many good hockey players in Minnesota that it makes the recruiting trips efficient and worthwhile,” he said.
Drawing players away from Minnesota’s own colleges to play from a new team may seem difficult, but both Brandwene and Johnson spoke of a variety of incentives to attend Penn State, including the new Pegula Ice Arena and the university’s athletics.
“I just think it had a lot of opportunities to offer, both academically and athletically,” Amy Petersen said. “Obviously, the new rink’s awesome, and I liked everything about the program. It’s always fun to be a part of something new.”
The Lions have already begun to cement a relationship with Minnetonka, as they are set to add goaltender Hannah Ehresmann next season. Johnson said there has been great communication between the two sides, while Kearns said they’re hoping to create a pipeline out of Minnetonka, which “(breeds) great talent.”
After arriving, the success Bowman and Petersen saw at Minnetonka has carried over to the collegiate level. In 24 games, Bowman is tied for first on the team with seven goals, while Petersen is tied for first with eight assists. Nielsen has five assists.
If future recruits from the state contribute right away like Bowman and Petersen, the team’s record could improve sooner rather than later.
“I love the way our program-building process is going,” Brandwene said. “And this current class — the way they have stepped in and made an impact right from day one at both ends of the ice — is emblematic of the wonderful present and future we’re going to have.”