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Girls' hockey preview: Royals program pointing up

Grace Swenson is among three senior on the Woodbury girls' hockey team this season. RiverTown Multimedia file photo

Woodbury has youth on its side with a sophomore-heavy group for a program looking for a successful rebuild.

"A few years ago, the majority of our kids in a playoff game against Hill-Murray were eighth- and ninth-graders," Royals head coach Chris Lepper said. "Now they're sophomores and juniors."

Those classes will look to steer the Royals (1-4) out of the winter doldrums of three or four regular season wins the past three years. It doesn't mean an immediate turnaround, though, due to early-season injuries and first-time varsity players learning the ropes in a tough Suburban East Conference.

"We're just trying to get everything in line and see where we're at," Lepper said. "We've had some close games that we've been right there [and] that we've had the chance to win."

That includes three goaltenders vying for time again. Junior Allison Beix and sophomores Anna Julius and Erica Gillen have each made a start in the first six games of the season.

"All three kids work extremely hard," Lepper said. "They've been in the program a long time. It's just that we're waiting for one of them to take charge."

Beix went 1-12 last winter with an .870 save percentage, and Gillen had a 1-9 record with an .862 save percentage. Julius showed promise going 1-1 with an .894 save percentage.

Early on this season, Beix notched the team's first win and Julius allowed a goal in her first start. Gillen had a 28-save, 2-goals allowed performance against Hastings Nov. 14.

Penalty kills has been a bright spot for the Royals in the young season. They started 15-15 on killing penalties through Nov. 24.

"It's really helped us out," Lepper said.

He has also been looking for the defense to help the offense out more in the young season. His staff has been pushing for "more rushing up of the puck" in transition.

"It's cost us a few goals early, but it's something that we need to do to get more points on the board," Lepper said.

Offense remains a major area of concern with top goal scorers Amy Haslerud, seven goals, and Shannon Motzko, nine goals, graduated. No Royals skater has more than a goal through five games.

Freshman forward Nicole Stickels leads the team in points with a goal and an assist. Hayley Zwakman, Lexie Decker, Isabel Chmielewski and Isabel Lippai have a goal apiece. All of those players except for Zwakman played for the Royals varsity last winter.

Zwakman, a freshman who plays center for the third line, is among the new players "adjusting to playing the high school level," Lepper said. The faster pace of varsity competition plays a big role in that, Lepper added.

A tough conference and section await the Royals. The SEC has six state-caliber teams in Cretin-Derham Hall, East Ridge, Forest Lake, Mounds View, Stillwater and White Bear Lake. Class 2A Section 4 has Hill-Murray in addition to three SEC powers.

Woodbury doesn't have the senior leadership many of those teams enjoy. The Royals have three seniors: Erin Jeseritz, Grace Swenson and Victoria Sweeney.

"It's not a team that's been graduating seven seniors every year," Lepper said. "We've been graduating three to four for the last couple years. It's just kept the team very young."

Lepper believes the program is "in an upswing" with a bigger presence of younger players with varsity experience.

"The majority of the 31 girls that we have are sophomore and younger," Lepper said. "Everything is just going to take time."