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Expectations high as Falcons hockey teams prepare for new year under seasoned coaches

The UW-River Falls men’s and women’s ice hockey teams are preparing for the start of the 2016-2017 season.

The women Falcons finished second in the country last season after losing in the NCAA Division III National Championship against the Plattsburgh (New York) State Cardinals by a score of 5-1.

Joe Cranston, UWRF women’s hockey head coach, said the team does not have to worry about excess pressure after the championship appearance.

“I don’t think so. I always downplay it and we just move on,” said Cranston. “As a coaching staff, it’s nice to get to that championship game so you can learn from it…But no, we just start over and take it one day at a time.”

At the start of a season, teams are allowed only two weeks of formal practices. A lot goes into those weeks. Cranston said he likes to focus on the fundamentals more than anything.

“The first and foremost thing I need to do is get (the players) up to speed,” said Cranston. “That’s more important than learning systems, because if we’re not up to speed and we’re not moving our feet, then we’re going to struggle.” Practices are just starting up for Cranston’s team.

Cranston’s Falcons are projected to win the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) for the fourth consecutive year even with the departure of Chloe Kinsel.

Kinsel, who graduated last spring, led the team in goals (26), assists (21), points (47), shots (135) and game-winning goals (6). It is no easy task to replace that type of production on any team.

“You can’t replace a kid like that,” said Cranston. “As a team, we just have to step it up.” Kinsel departed UWRF as the second-most leading scorer of all time.

Although the Falcons lost their leading scorer, they bring back junior goalie Angie Hall. The Falcon netminder out of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, brings back nearly two years of experience. Hall has played almost 99 percent of the minutes over the past two seasons, according to Cranston.

“She’s a seasoned veteran and she looks awesome right now in practice. She looks a lot better than she ever has,” said Cranston.

Cranston, the only coach in the program’s history, will be eyeing a ninth consecutive NCAA tournament trip with the end goal being another National Championship berth.

The men’s team, coached by Steve Freeman, is also predicted to finish atop the WIAC standings coming into the new season.

Last year ended at the hands of future national champions UW-Stevens Point in double overtime of the WIAC Playoff Championship (also known as the Commissioner’s Cup).

Before the season started, Freeman was inducted into the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame.

“It’s really an honor. When you think back on it, it really makes you think of the past,” said Freeman.

The upcoming year will mark Freeman’s 21st season as the head coach of the Falcons. He has been a part of five National Championship appearances and has received 11 Coach of the Year awards as well.

The Falcons will be without Tanner Milliron, the team’s goalie all of last year. Milliron posted a 1.83 goals against average and recorded 632 saves, both good enough for first place in the WIAC. With the loss of Milliron, the Falcons will turn to junior Goalie Alex Okicki.

“We’ve seen Alex Okicki now for a couple of years and he’s waited his turn, just like Tanner did,” said Freeman. “He’s ready to take that step and step in. I feel very confident that he’s going to have a good season.”

Freeman said the team’s style of play will benefit any goalie on the ice.

“We play a very structured defensive style. We try and take away the middle of the ice as much as we can, and keep shots to the outside,” said Freeman.

Okicki started, and won, two games last season (both against Finlandia University) while posting 25 saves with no goals allowed.

With a large senior class, Freeman emphasized the importance to having that leadership.

“When you have an older team the younger guys kind of mesh and the older players kind of teach them how to play,” said Freeman.

The Falcons return nine of their 10 points leaders from a year ago.

The men’s team starts its season Friday, Oct. 28, at home against St. Scholastica, and the women’s team begins its campaign on Saturday, Oct. 29, in St. Paul versus Bethel.

Permission to republish this story is given by the author and Falcon News Service.

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