The buildup to the 2020-21 Bemidji State women’s hockey season took a lot more work than usual. And that goes for everyone in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association women’s league.

After a nearly two-month delay, the Beavers will have to wait a little longer than they’d expected to finally lift the lid on the regular season. Their series at St. Cloud State this weekend has been postponed due to positive COVID-19 cases within the Huskies program. Instead, BSU will look to open the year Dec. 4-5 when it’s scheduled to host Minnesota State.

The team has only a first-half schedule for now, but even getting that far took plenty of effort.

“I think I saw at least six different drafts (of the schedule),” BSU head coach Jim Scanlan said. “Kudos to the league, the commissioner Jen Flowers, administrators. Everyone’s working their tails off trying to put this thing together and it has not been easy. Obviously the COVID challenge is front and center, but there’s a lot of other challenges that come with it.”

Schools are working on a league-wide testing protocol that will satisfy both Big Ten and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference members.

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For now, the league will start the season split into two groups with BSU, SCSU and Minnesota State in one, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin in the other, and Minnesota Duluth floating between the two. The remainder of the schedule will be announced at a later date.

The players are simply happy to know they’ll be able to face off with somebody else besides their own teammates after several weeks of practice.

“We’ve been working hard all fall here, and not knowing whether we’d be playing games was definitely hard, although all the girls were doing really good at keeping up the pace in practice,” said senior co-captain Clair DeGeorge. “Knowing that we’re playing here in a couple days, you definitely can see some more energy in everyone.”

Replenishing the lineup

Bemidji State junior Lydia Passolt (3) shoots the puck in a game against Minnesota on Feb. 7 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State junior Lydia Passolt (3) shoots the puck in a game against Minnesota on Feb. 7 at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

A number of key roles will be up for grabs this season.

Leading scorer Haley Mack graduated and signed with the NWHL’s Minnesota Whitecaps, and No. 1 goaltender Lauren Bench joined the Golden Gophers as a graduate transfer.

In total, BSU graduated seven players from last year’s 16-18-3 team that finished fifth in the WCHA and ended its season in a three-game quarterfinal loss to UMD. Additionally, Lexi Cheveldayoff has retired from hockey for medical reasons. She did not appear in a game over two seasons.

The Beavers have plenty of experience coming back with eight seniors in the mix.

“Now there’s opportunities for players coming back to grab a more significant role, and I’ve been really pleased with the progress all of them have made,” Scanlan said.

The team returns 51% (36 of 71) of its goals from a year ago, including a haul from senior Lydia Passolt, who bucketed 10 to finish second on the squad.

“Lydia has got just a tremendous release, one of the best releases I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Scanlan said. “She’s got a nose around the net. She’s someone that we’re going to look to.”

DeGeorge, who totaled a team-high 15 assists to complement seven goals, is also back for her senior year. She was among 53 players invited to a national team camp last month when USA Hockey evaluated potential members for its 2021 world championship roster.

“Our opponents are certainly going to have her line circled as a line to stop,” Scanlan said. “She’s the kind of player that relishes that challenge. I look for her to score more. She’s always been a distributor. She’s always racked up more assists than goals. We’ve talked to her about increasing her goal-scoring.”

Senior co-captain Mak Langei leads a defensive corps that also counts seniors Kara Werth and Tina Kampa among its numbers.

“Our senior class is definitely very strong as well,” DeGeorge said. “I’m confident that we can step up and take over (the departing seniors’) roles for sure.”

WIth 25 career starts and a national player of the week award to her name, senior Kerigan Dowhy has already proven herself in net.

“Kerigan, in three previous years, has won some really big games for us and has proven she can be a No. 1 goalie,” Scanlan said. “She definitely has the experience.”

Junior Lexi Baker and freshman Hannah Hogenson will also vie for playing time.

Seven freshmen -- Hogenson, forwards Taylor Nelson, Kayla Santl, Anika Stoskopf, Calli Forsberg and Gabbie Smith, plus defenseman Khloe Lund -- will look to make an impact as rookies.

“We’re going to need contributions from our freshmen,” Scanlan said. “But that’s a good thing. They bring that energy, they bring that passion. Again, we’re going to have players that are going to be in roles that they haven’t had before.”

Goals and expectations

Bemidji State defenseman Mak Langei (2) fires a shot toward the Ohio State goal on Nov. 2, 2019, at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
Bemidji State defenseman Mak Langei (2) fires a shot toward the Ohio State goal on Nov. 2, 2019, at the Sanford Center. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

The WCHA figures to be the most challenging conference in the country, as evidenced by the preseason poll.

Four league members -- No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 4 Minnesota, No. 5 Ohio State and No. 8 Minnesota Duluth -- are among the top eight spots. Two of those four non-WCHA schools in the top eight -- No. 2 Cornell and No. 6 Princeton -- will not be playing this season as the Ivy League has since canceled winter sports.

“I think the entire league is going to be strong,” Scanlan said. “I think Mankato has gotten better, I think St. Cloud has gotten better. It’s going to be extremely competitive.”

It’s unknown how often each WCHA team will face one another, though Scanlan thinks an unbalanced schedule is likely. A league playoff format has not yet been decided on, and there’s a possibility that only the top four teams will qualify rather than all seven as usual.

That uncertainty may provide even more motivation for the Beavers.

“Regardless, we want to be a top four team in the league, and we want to advance to the national tournament,” Scanlan said. That’s the goal every year. … I think the expectation is for us to get better every single week. We know we’re going to be a much better team in February than we are today.”