Most coaches coming off of a 14-0 loss wouldn’t be in much of a mood to talk the next morning. Vince O’Mara, however, is a bit different.
It’s not that the ninth-year head coach of the Lindenwood Lady Lions enjoys seeing his team pummeled, as the Lions were in earrly January by No. 6 North Dakota. However, O’Mara knew exactly what he was getting into when the Lions made their move from the club ranks to NCAA competition.
“We knew exactly what we were getting into,” said O’Mara, whose team has gone 2-20-0 against a schedule that includes two games against No. 1 Wisconsin, four games against No. 5 Mercyhurst, one game against North Dakota and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game on Nov. 10 against No. 8 Bemidji State. “Pretty much everything we expected has definitely come true.”
Besides, with NCAA hockey having been a subject of discussion at Lindenwood ever since the 2007 Frozen Four was awarded to nearby St. Louis, O’Mara is excited to have the school’s Division I dreams finally coming to fruition.
“Back when it was talked about years ago, it was ‘Oh wow, maybe this is a reality,’” O’Mara said. “Then, after that season, it was pretty much set on the back shelf, because it was the whole university going NCAA or nothing. So, we kind of put it on the back shelf, and then, it kind of came about really quick, because we didn’t know until around this time last year that we were going this year, so we kind of got a late start on everything. It is a relief.
“When we had the meeting and were discussing whether we were going to elevate the women’s hockey program to that [level], we said, ‘That’s a great challenge and one that we’re up for,’ and with the success that we had in the non-varsity level, a couple of years of hard work and we want to have that success at this level, too.”
The sudden move to NCAA competition didn’t give O’Mara much time to get his program ready, and that has shown to some degree in Lindenwood’s performance thus far. Of the 22 players who have suited up for the Lady Lions this season, 13 are freshmen, and none of the players have experience in NCAA competition.
“The one thing that we really didn’t see that would be as much of a learning experience as it is is just having the amount of young kids that we have in the locker room and none of the upperclassmen that have been at this level,” O’Mara said. “The lack of having some upperclassmen with DI experience to lean on or show the way, I think that’s been one of the harder things.”
As a result, some aspects of the student-athlete experience can leave the Lindenwood players in awe, particularly when they visit such majestic venues as Wisconsin’s Kohl Center or North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“Stepping out on some of the ice that we’ve stepped out on has been unbelievable,” said Lady Lions captain Brett Lobreau. “It just starts driving a bus into the arena and walking down a hallway like NHL players do, and getting Gatorade and stick tape and wax and all of that, and coming onto a rink with a Jumbotron where you can see yourself up there. It’s just something that I’ve never experienced, and it just gives you the butterflies.”
The same could easily be said of playing some of the competition the Lady Lions have faced so far this season. When they faced North Dakota, the Lindenwood players had to contend with the dynamic duo of Jocelyn Lamoureux and Monique Lamoureux-Kolls, both of whom won silver medals with Team USA at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, along with Michelle Karvinen, who led Sweden in scoring en route to a bronze medal. Against Wisconsin at the beginning of the season, Lobreau and her teammates were charged with defending against Hilary Knight, another star of the U.S. national team. However, Lobreau has made sure not to let admiration turn to awe when she’s on the ice.
“When you’re on the ice,” Lobreau said, “you just take whoever’s in front of you and you don’t worry about what you have there. I don’t even realize who’s out there.”
That mentality is shared by the younger players on the Lindenwood squad, including leading scorer Alison Wickehnheiser.
“When I step up to the faceoff, I’m thinking, ‘Oh wow, is this really happening’?” Wickenheiser said. “But in the heat of the moment, you don’t really think about that. You just play each player like you should.”
In a sense, it’s natural that Wickenheiser would be comfortable around world-class talent. Her second cousin, Hayley Wickenheiser, won her third consecutive Olympic gold medal in Vancouver and became the first woman to score a goal in a men’s professional hockey league in 2003. Another cousin, Doug Wickenheiser, was the top pick in the 1980 NHL entry draft, and played more than 500 games in the NHL with five different teams, including the St. Louis Blues.
“Growing up in my family, hockey was a huge thing,” Wickenheiser said. “Growing up, a lot of my family members expected me to get as far as Hayley, and I always looked up to her when I was a kid, and when I got older, I realized that that’s not the path that I wanted to take, but she was always a role model.”
Of course, playing for a new Division I program at a school whose teams had competed in the NAIA is a far cry from the elite levels the Wickenheiser name has been seen at previously. In her own way, however, Alison Wickenheiser is adding to her family’s pioneering legacy, helping to get a new program off the ground.
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“I knew it was going to be a huge character builder,” Wickenheiser said of coming to Lindenwood. “Not many people get to experience building a program from the bottom up. We’re all going through the exact same thing, and we can lean on each other and talk to each other. To me, the biggest appeal was the fact that we were all going to go through it together.”
With the game against North Dakota out of the way, the Lady Lions are hoping to turn the page and have a better experience in the remaining games on their schedule. Lindenwood’s remaining schedule includes seven games against Division III opponents, a trip to fellow DI independent Sacred Heart, and five exhibition games against club teams. Having been beaten up by some of Division I’s best so far this season, the Lady Lions are hoping to finish the season strong and build momentum for the 2012-13 campaign, when they’ll play a full Division I schedule as members of College Hockey America.
“We can’t take anyone lightly,” Lobreau said, “but it would be nice to get the next 11 wins. We can’t go there taking it like, ‘We can win.’ We have to think, ‘We do play. We can play.’”
If Lobreau and her teammates have their way about it, they’ll show how well they “can play” over the next two months, and it won’t be long before we hear the Lady Lions roar in the Division I ranks.