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Fusion will be tested early

Miranda VanDell, left, Heather Shew and Sally Cranston will serve as co-captains of the St. Croix Valley Fusion hockey team this season. The Fusion kick off the season this week by hosting their annual Thanksgiving Invitational in Baldwin. <i>Bob Burrows photo</i>

After winning three straight state championships from 2010-12, this week the St. Croix Valley Fusion girls' hockey team begins its quest to return to the WIAA State Tournament.

And they will be challenged right off the bat.

The Fusion, who finished 16-10-1 last season and reached the WIAA sectional final for the fifth straight year, open the 2012-13 season by hosting three of last year's top ten teams at its annual Thanksgiving Invite in Baldwin.

The Fusion, a cooperative team consisting of players from River Falls, Baldwin-Woodville, St. Croix Central, Boyceville and Glenwood City, play the Webster/Siren/Frederic/Grantsburg Co-op Blizzard Wednesday at 7 p.m.

After Thanksgiving on Thursday, they host the Cap City (Sun Prairie) Cougars, a 2012 state qualifier, Friday at 2:30 p.m., and the Hayward Hurricanes, who ended St. Croix Valley's string of three straight state titles in last year's sectional final, Saturday at 1 p.m., all at the Baldwin Civic Center.

Things don't get much easier from there. After visiting Red Wing, a Minnesota state qualifier a year ago, on Dec. 4, the Fusion return home to host 2012 Wisconsin state qualifier Onalaska on Thursday, Dec. 6, in River Falls.

"Our first five games are against very good teams," head coach Matt Cranston said. "So, we will see what we are made of right out of the gate."

The Fusion return plenty of firepower from last year's squad, including honorable mention All-State forward Heather Shew, as well as two of the top goaltenders in the state -- senior Kalli Armagost and junior Carlie Christensen. Armagost is a two-time All-Big Rivers Conference selection while Christensen posted a record of 7-3 between the pipes last season.

"Our goaltending will no doubt be a huge strength for us this year again," Cranston said.

Four of the Fusion's top six scorers from a year ago are back, including seniors Shew and Sally Cranston, who tied for second on the team in scoring with 26 points each. Shew finished with 13 goals and 13 assists in 2011-12 while Cranston, the coach's daughter, tallied seven goals and 19 assists.

Senior forward Miranda VanDell is back after accounting for eight goals and six assists a year ago while senior defenseman Micha Bennett returns after scoring four goals and dishing out 11 assists from her blue line position.

Also back are juniors Taylor Magill, Allie DeMotts, Tori Forseth and Laura Keimig, and sophomores Lindsay Veenendall and Rachal Anderson.

Top scorer and Big Rivers Conference Player of the Year Hailey Rock has taken her talents to UW-Stevens Point, but Cranston believes this year's newcomers are capable of helping fill the void left by her graduation.

"We have a good bunch of freshman coming up this year," he said. "Not only good hockey players but great kids. They will make an immediate impact on our team."

Cranston said the talented crop of first year players gives the Fusion more depth than last season.

"We will start the season with four lines, five defensemen, and two very solid goalies," he said.

With assistant coaches Karl Erickson and Ann Rock alongside him again this season, Cranston said hopes are high for another successful season.

"It should be a another fun season," he said. "The BRC and section will be tight; there's lots of parity."

The Fusion's first test will come this Wednesday night, Nov. 21, at 7 p.m. against the Blizzard at the Baldwin Civic Center.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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