DII women's hockey team reloaded for next year
February 19, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Sara Niemi's first season as head coach of Liberty University's Division II women's hockey team didn't offer much highlight reel material compared with the Lady Flames' DI program, ranked No. 1 in the nation for the past two months.
Liberty (0-12) finished eighth in the final ACHA Division II East Division poll, with only the top three teams advancing to the national tournament. The Lady Flames were shut out in eight of their losses.
But Niemi, a former Liberty DI defender who got her undergraduate degree in sport management in 2009 (the same year the DII program started), said this rebuilding season helped establish the foundation for the future of the Lady Flames' DII squad.
"This semester, we actually added six girls to our team, which is usually not heard of in a January semester," she said. "We lost some players in December, but ended up gaining more. That was not common (but) it was good. It's going to help our team for next year."
After losing its last two games by 6-0, 6-0 to Cal-Penn — the second-ranked team in the East — on Feb. 2 and Maryland on Feb. 10, Niemi already has her team focused on next fall.
"Now, we're pretty much practicing with all of these new girls and we're looking forward to next season," she said. "Next year, we're going to probably have around 16 to 18 players. It's the first time since the team started three years ago that we've had that many players (so) we're building pretty quickly."
She has enjoyed working with the newcomers and is excited to see how much they can pick up in the offseason.
"Some had never played before, some had played but not in an organized sense,"Niemi said. "They'd just do it for fun, not on a travel team. My team is used as a developmental team. My job is to take what I have and try to make them better."
One player she will have a hard time replacing is goalkeeper Leanne Niemi, her younger sister who will be graduating this spring after playing in her second straight Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference all-star game in Hershey, Pa., in April.
Leanne averaged more than 56 saves per game (686 in 12 games), leading all of ACHA Division I in total saves. She also finished tied for eighth by saving 91 percent of opponents' shots on goal in league games. A few teams, including the Terrapins, pelleted her with more than 100 shots on goal.
"We definitely went with a more defensive-minded strategy this year," Sara Niemi said. "Our strategy this year was to teach these girls how to play defensively before we played offensively."
The defensive focus prevented foes from scoring more goals, but also kept Liberty from putting many shots on opposing cages.
"It was just hard because in hockey you want to have your stronger girls on defense," Niemi said. "So many had never played hockey before, it was hard for us to be competitive."
Unlike the Lady Flames, most of the teams they faced offered only a DII program, meaning they were their respective schools' elite squads.
Next year, with the bolstered lineup, Liberty may ramp up its schedule with a few more road trips. The University of Virginia is the closest school that offers a women's hockey program and there are few others in the state.