DII Lady Flames finding identity with mix of returning players, newcomers from all over U.S.
Glancing at the roster for Liberty University’s ACHA Division II women’s hockey team this season, there is representation from across the United States.
“We’re from all over,” said fourth-year Head Coach Rena Leone, a Pennsylvania native and former Lady Flames DI defenseman. “We have 10 new players, including seven freshmen and three transfers, on a roster of 19. We’ve got players from Washington State, California, Arizona, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.”
She has a couple players with dual citizenship — one with Canadian connections, senior forward Brynlee Anderson, and one from Mexico City, senior defenseman Dominique Dueñas-Abin, who recently played on the winning women’s team at the Amerigol Latam Cup Tournament in Florida.
Leone is complemented by three assistant coaches — Kevin Serapiglia (’14, a former DIII men’s player), Holly Turner (’20, a former DII defenseman herself), and Ian Dutkus— who have stayed on staff through the COVID-19 seasons providing continuity and stability amidst the roster rebuilding. They are all on board and the players on the same page as they prepare for this weekend’s season-opening series against West Virginia, Friday at 9:45 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. in the LaHaye Ice Center.
“We have five sophomores and four upperclassmen and the rest are underclassmen, so we are a very young team,” Leone said. “They’ve come in ready to work and with speed and hoping to change our game up a little bit this year.”
For as diverse as the team is, the players have bonded quickly this preseason.
“Team chemistry in the locker room has been very good,” Leone said. “It’s been exciting to see all of the girls find their own personalities and everyone has been getting along both on and off the ice without any cliques. I think this is going to be a very good season for us, both in the locker room, spiritually, and hopefully getting some wins this year.”
Anderson and sophomore defenseman Madison Conley (who scored 5 goals and distributed 4 assists last season) skated with the women’s DI team during tryouts, but they are content to be leaders on the DII squad this season.
“In the past we have had girls who have dropped down from women’s DI and we used their experience and their skill level to kind of build the team,” Leone said. “This year, it is a true women’s DII team where we are recruiting AA players and not relying on players that are trying to prove themselves that they should have been on women’s DI. We have a lot of players here who are excited to be on women’s DII and excited to build this program to hopefully someday being able to go to the national championships.”
Leone likes the way the team is coming together and how it has its priorities straight, putting God first and letting everything else follow. Anderson and senior goalie Alex Ritter return to serve as the team’s spiritual leaders.
“It’s going to be an exciting season,” she said. “I don’t want to oversell it, but we could definitely make a splash this year. I would say this team could be as competitive as our ‘17-‘18 team when we won the CHE (College Hockey East).”
Graduate defenseman Sarah LaPorte, the Lady Flames’ leading scorer last season with 9 goals and 19 assists, is the only player remaining from that team. She is complemented by sophomore forward Madison Gaddy (7G, 7A), who ranked third, as well as Isabel Gracia, a sophomore transfer, and freshman forward Izzy Crossman, who will make immediate impacts on offense while freshman Katrina Walhof does the same on defense.
“Abby (Hodsden), our goalie, is very solid, so we have talent spread out among our incoming players,” Leone said.
While young, the Lady Flames could be deeper than many of their opponents this season.
“With women’s DII, many teams only have one or two solid lines and we’re looking at three solid lines, so we’re going to have depth and we’re going to have speed,” Leone said.
Shifting to an independent 23-game schedule after competing in the Delaware Valley College Hockey Conference (DVCHC) last season will give Liberty more flexibility and a better shot at making the Southeast Region playoffs with a top-five ranking at the end of the regular season.
“We were in the DVCHC last year and it didn’t go well for us logistic-wise for making the playoffs,” Leone said, noting that Delaware, Rowan, and Navy from the DVCHC will potentially be the top three-ranked teams in the region. “We are looking to get up there but will have to see how we adjust. We shouldn’t have any blowout games. They should all be competitive.”
The Lady Flames will be tested early with two showcases in October — one at Delaware (Oct. 7-9 against Navy, Delaware, and Buffalo) and one at Navy (Oct. 28-30 against Delaware, Loyola (Md.), and Navy).
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer; Video by Kylee Ligle/Club Sports Video & Media Coordinator