Fighting Back: Sioux Healing Up For Second Half
by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer
It's that time of year, again; the holidays are in the air, winter break is looming, and exams are on the horizon.
OK, no one is looking forward to that last one. But if you wear the green-and-white of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, you've got the second half of hockey season ahead of you, too.
Over the last three seasons, the Sioux have gotten off to some slow starts, hovering around the .500 mark as the calendar year ends. It's a different story, however, after the ball drops on the new year in Grand Forks, with 15 second-half wins in 2006-07, 19 in 07-08, and 15 in 08-09. In each of those, they've made the NCAA tournament, finishing as high as third in the first two of those season.
This year is shaping up to be no different, as they enter the half at 9-6-3, but just 6-6-2 in WCHA league play — still good enough for the sixth overall ranking in the country.
Those numbers beg the question: What does Coach Dave Hakstol put into the water bottles come January 1?
"Every year has been different," Hakstol says. "There's no one specific thing. Throughout the season, we put a lot of emphasis on team development and individual development, and improving the quality of the team. Usually things come together and click in the second half of the season."
Things appeared to be different this season, with North Dakota clicking early for a 6-1-1 start, which earned the team the No. 2 ranking in the country. Yet, on Nov. 13, things took a turn for the worse, as the Sioux earned a 4-2 win over St. Cloud State, but in the process, lost senior captain Chay Genoway to an undisclosed injury after he was brutally hit from behind. Since then, the team has gone 2-5-2, losing senior and assistant captain Darcy Zajac along the way, 4-to-6 weeks with a shoulder injury. Genoway's injury still hasn't presented a timetable for return.
"We started strong, but losing Chay, that hurt a lot," says Chris VandeVelde, the only non-injured senior captain. "We've gotten into a bit of a lull, but we're excited for break. We're in a pretty good position to make a charge. Hopefully we can come back and put a streak together."
According to Hakstol, there's no reason that shouldn't be in the cards.
"We have six losses on the year, and they're all one-goal losses," he says. "I can pick out a 10-minute stretch in every game we've lost where we've shot ourselves in the foot. We're a good team with a chance to be a very good team. We have to continue maturing."
With 17 freshmen and sophomores currently on the Sioux roster, maturing isn't an option so much as a necessity. Their second half is no cakewalk, as they'll face Minnesota, Cornell and Denver, amongst others, post-break. Losing the on-ice leadership of Genoway and Zajac certainly won't make things easier on anyone, but Hakstol makes sure everyone has a one-day-at-a-time approach.
"We have a mindset of winning games regardless of what our roster looks like. We just want to go out and win games to improve our position within our league and nationally. Show up, and go to work. Use every day to get better."
"You know, they're still learning, and they'll keep learning," VandeVelde says. "They need to come back as a veteran part of the team. They know how to score, they know how to put up points."
That includes the team's leading scorer, freshman Danny Kristo (16 points in 18 games), as well as top goal scorer, sophomore Jason Gregoire (8). Second-year man Brad Eidsness has been good in net, as well — not great — with a .909 save percentage and 2.24 GAA. Junior Evan Trupp and VandeVelde have represented the upperclassmen, second and third in team scoring. With so many younger players, though, it's not just the scoring the elder team members need to provide.
"I have to keep leading," VandeVelde says. "I have to pick it up a little, be a leader for the younger guys. We can't make excuses, we have to come back and deal with the injuries."
Easier said than done, but should the Sioux return from their first-half maladies with a vengeance, recent history shows their second-half opponents will be the ones that have something to deal with.