Competition has been a common theme since the start of training camp for the UPEI women's hockey team, and for good reason.
It's a big year for the Panthers and not just because they're hosting the U Sports championship, March 14-17. The young team is equipped with more firepower than in recent years and poised to take a run at the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) title.
Knowing the road ahead and what's at stake, head coach Bruce Donaldson and his staff spent the summer assessing their roster and decided changes needed to take place. Nothing was guaranteed and players had to earn their way on the roster – rookies and veterans alike. A series of honest conversations, intense intrasquad battles and a heavy exhibition schedule helped create a competitive environment that hasn't been felt in years.
“I think the girls have a better appreciation for the commitment we need in order to have success this year,” Donaldson said.
After a disappointing sixth-place finish (7-10-7) in 2017-18, it's understandable why there's a sense of urgency to turn the program around. The Panthers, who open the regular season tonight by hosting the St. Thomas Tommies at 7 p.m., intend on taking major strides in 2018-19.
“A top-three finish is priority one and getting through the first round of the playoffs would be priority two,” the bench boss said. “And, I believe, these are attainable goals for ourselves.”
Donaldson's confidence and belief has resonated with his players, including new captain Emma Weatherbie, who steps into the role following Emma Martin's graduation.
“I'm very confident in the group of girls we have this year. I think we realized during the pre-season that if we play to our potential, we are a force in the AUS,” said the fifth-year forward. “As a team, we want to keep improving everyday and push towards the goals we set out to accomplish. I have no doubt we will be a top-three team in the AUS this year.”
To get there, the Panthers invested heavily in an offence that finished in the bottom half in scoring last season. Only two current members of the team finished with double-digit points – Rachel Colle with 16 (12 goals and four assists) and Leah Byrne with 13 (five goals and eight assists). As a result, Donaldson brought in four quality forwards in Jolena Gillard, Taylor Gillis, Kelly Clements and Delaney Boehm, who all have proven track records of finding the back of the net with their respective teams before committing to UPEI.
“Our new-look offence involves having a shot-first mentality and getting more bodies to the net when we are in the offensive zone,” said Colle, who's entering her fourth year of eligibility. “We recognize that we are not a finesse team and that we're at our best when we're getting lots of shots off and crashing the net for rebounds.”
Meanwhile, second-year blueliner Sophie Vandale headlines a young defence and has earned the trust of her coach after being named one of the team’s alternate captains. With the help of veterans Gabrielle Gray, Caroline Daoust and Kristen MacIntyre, Vandale will help bridge the gap between youth and experience.
Second-year goaltender Camille Scherger is looking to build off a respectable rookie campaign when she posted a 3.39 goals-against average and .869 save percentage in nine starts.
While the AUS crown commands their attention, it's impossible to ignore the ultimate prize at the end of it all and the Panthers want more than to just show up to their own party, but to contend for a medal as well.
“The national championships are always on our minds. We want to earn our way there and show any skeptics we belong,” Weatherbie said. “I want nothing more than to walk out of my last U Sports game in my home rink – the rink I grew up playing in – with a medal around my neck. And I believe this team is capable of achieving that."
Compiled by Thomas Becker for UPEI
A look at the UPEI Panthers women’s hockey team’s roster:
Uniform number, player, Year of eligibility, Hometown
1 Camille Scherger, Second, Lloydminster, Alta.
31 Adeline Small, Second, Lower Onslow, N.S.
90 Shelby Ryan, Third, Cole Harbour, N.S.
2 Sophie Vandale, Second, Winnipeg
4 Katelynn Nice, First, Saint John, N.B.
5 Gabrielle Gray, Fourth, Brownlee, Sask.
19 Ally Clements, Second, High Bank
22 Kristen MacIntyre, Third, Sydney, N.S
23 Caroline Daoust, Third, Ile-Bizard, Que.
28 Nikki Gallant, First, Charlottetown
86 Sydney Lyndon, First, Stittsville, Ont.
7 Emma Weatherbie, Fifth, Charlottetown
9 Kelly Clements, First, High Bank
10 Taylor Gillis, First, Summerside
11 Tyler Way, Second, London, Ont.
14 Kaylee Dufresne, Third, Orleans, Ont.
15 Shelby Foran, Second, Whitney, N.B.
17 Rachel Colle, Fourth, Toronto
18 Delaney Boehm, First, East St. Paul, Man.
55 Samantha Mintz, First, Toronto
71 Maria Clinton, Third, Souris
74 Leah Byrne, Second, Glace Bay, N.S.
88 Jolena Gillard, First, Deer Lake, N.L.
91 Jenna Pellerin, Third, Halifax
95 Faith Steeves, Third, Havelock, N.B.
Head coach - Bruce Donaldson
Assistant coach - Lance Jones
Assistant coach - Ashlyn Somers
Goaltender coach - Jamie Blanchard
Skills development and analytics coach - Jamie MacIntyre
Video coach - Marshall Mayne
Manager - Don MacFadyen
Strength and conditioning coach - Kris MacPhee
Sport psychology coach - Danny MacDonald
Nutrition coach - Melissa Rossiter
PANTHERS IN REVIEW
A look at the UPEI Panthers women’s hockey team record during the past five seasons:
7-10-7, lost 2-0 to St. Thomas in the first round of the playoffs.
14-9-1, lost 2-0 to Moncton in the first round of the playoffs.
6-15-3, did not qualify for playoffs.
8-13-3, lost 2-1 to Saint Mary’s in the first round of the playoffs.
9-13-2, lost 2-0 to Moncton in the first round of the playoffs.
UPEI THIS WEEKEND
A look at the UPEI Panthers regular season schedule for this weekend:
7 p.m. – St. Thomas at UPEI.
Noon – Women’s start for Universite de Moncton Invitational.
12:45 p.m. – Men’s start for Universite de Moncton Invitational.
2 p.m. – Saint Mary’s at UPEI.
6 p.m. – UPEI vs. UNB at Saint Mary’s.
10:10 p.m. – UPEI vs. Saint Mary’s at Saint Mary’s.
7 p.m. – UNB at UPEI.
10:10 a.m. – UPEI vs. Dalhousie at Dalhousie.
12:30 p.m. – UPEI vs. Mount Allison at Dalhousie.
2 p.m. – St. Thomas at UPEI.
2 p.m. – Moncton at UPEI.
2 p.m. – St. FX at UPEI.
4:15 p.m. – St. FX at UPEI.