March 3, 2009

By Amy Farnum Novin

Gustavus Adolphus College’s women’s ice hockey team began the season without a goaltender that had ever played a minute collegiately, but that has not stopped the Gusties from putting together the best scoring defense in the nation.

Last year, head coach Mike Carroll directed the Gusties to the first undefeated league record in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference history as the program won its fourth straight league title and fifth consecutive conference tournament, but entering this season, most of that experience was gone.  There were 11 first-year players on the 23-person roster, including three freshmen goaltenders.  Carroll, however, was not too concerned when he pondered the future.

“There’s a trend in Division III women’s hockey, since the sport keeps growing and getting better and better, that the teams that are the most competitive do have some turnover,” said Carroll.  “The younger kids are sometimes coming in a little more prepared than some of the kids that have been here three or four years.” 

Carroll did plan for extra practices before the first game, and a road trip on the first weekend of the season in hopes of giving the team time to bond.  Plus, a Freon leak at the Gusties’ home ice rink was a challenge that yielded some positive results, as the team was forced to travel to practice by bus together for the first few months of the season.

“We wanted to make sure that we could incorporate a good tryout process and competition within the team to sort out some things,” said Carroll.  “The upperclassmen needed to be open to accepting new teammates even though those new teammates are competing for jobs against them.”

But at the goaltender position, there were no upperclassmen to compete against.  Carroll brought in three freshmen for the spot, including two highly touted Minnesota high school recruits Danielle Justice and Emily Klatt. 

“We were concerned having three freshmen goalies, but we also knew that all three were pretty talented,” said Carroll.  “Two of them have stepped up and we have been alternating all year.  That was our goal to have them compete and get an opportunity to see where they fit in.”

Justice and Klatt both played in a summer league with a former Gustavus goalie, gleaning all the experience they could, but once practice began they were on their own.

“Once we got into the season and it was just us three freshmen on the ice, and no one else to really help us out as far as goaltending goes, it was a little intimidating,” said Klatt.  “We got the hang of it pretty quickly though, and we learned from each other.”

“We love each other, and get along really, really well,” said Justice.  “We have such a good time at practice even if we’re dead-tired – we find a way to have fun.” 

Justice and Klatt have split time at goalie, helping the team compile a nation-best 0.73 goals against average.  Justice, a native of Alexandria, Minn., ranks second in Division III in both goals against average (0.76) and save percentage (.949), while Klatt, who hails from Woodbury, Minn., boasts an 11-0-0 record and the top GAA in the nation at 0.69. 

“We have a good team and have a lot of veteran defensemen, and are also pretty deep on the forward line,” said Carroll.  “It takes a whole team to do a good job on our own end.  Each goalie has a unique style, and probably the hardest part has been to analyze them from game to game equally because they each have different strengths and weaknesses and things they are working on.  I’m happy they have come along in the process.”

With their different styles, the pair usually does not give each other advice on individual playing techniques, but encourages each other through drills and pushes each other to be the best.

“Now that we’re getting into the postseason, the competition level is picking up, but we kind of understand that’s just something that has to happen,” said Klatt.  “We know inside that competition is going to take place and we’re pushing each other.” 

Gustavus has reeled off six straight shutouts and put together a shutout stretch of 382:40 dating back to Feb. 7.  Justice, who was named to the MIAC All-Rookie Team, says that it is comforting have a talented team in front of her.

“One of the nicest things for a goaltender is having a defense you can trust,” said Justice.  “If you leave a bad rebound or something, they are there and can get it out for you.  I know they will do everything to stop the other team from having a good angle to shoot at, and that really gives me confidence to know they are behind me.”

The Gusties will host No. 8 St. Thomas in the MIAC championship game on March 4.  The winner receives an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III Championship.  Gustavus will enter the contest with the longest current unbeaten streak (25 games) in women’s collegiate hockey.