Improvement expected in Year 2 of A/C co-op

Armstrong/Cooper defender Emma Terres prepares to fire a shot on goal during her team’s 6-3 loss at Eden Prairie in the season opener Nov. 8. (Photo by Nick Clark – Sun Newspapers)

The proof will assuredly soon come in the form victories, but even in defeat, there was one certainty involving the 2012-13 season debut for the Armstrong/Cooper girls hockey team.

“We are better,” said head coach Kevin Gray, whose club dropped its opener at No. 16 Eden Prairie 6-3 Nov. 8. “I could tell that the first day of practice. We will win some hockey games this year.”

The girls won six of them a year ago, when they inaugurated the new cooperatively sponsored program between Armstrong and Cooper with a 6-16-4 season that had left plenty of reason for optimism ahead.

Sure, the 10-games under .500 finish left a desirable need for improvement, but the competitive nature displayed throughout the first season the team played together under Gray was noteworthy.

It was most evident in the final few weeks, when facing the most grueling portion of its schedule, Armstrong/Cooper proved it could hang with the state’s best girls hockey programs.

The girls took then third-ranked Anoka into overtime Jan. 7, before skating to a 2-2 tie with No. 15 Blaine a week later. The team earned the exact same result in a Jan. 27 visit to No. 7 Elk River, and they showed more promise in ending their season with a competitive effort in a section playoff defeat to eventual Class AA state champion Minnetonka.

“Last year was really about showing we can be a competitive program,” said Gray. “We accomplished that. Now, it is about taking the next step and finding a way to beat some of those teams.”

It didn’t transpire in the opener at Eden Prairie last week, but there were plenty of signs wins will come.

The two teams were scoreless after the first. The Eagles would net the game’s first goal on a power play 47 seconds into the second, but Armstrong/Cooper came right back to score the next two.

Senior Melanie Potter was credited with the team’s first goal of the season when a shot from the point appeared to bound in off her body at 3:06 of the period.

A little over a minute later, the girls struck again, this time on a 5-on-3 power play goal that was deflected in by sophomore Holly Enderle.

Eden Prairie answered with three straight goals to close out the second, and it would be 5-2 midway through the third when junior Stephanie Olsen slid a backhand into the net to make it a two-goal game.

“We never quit, and that’s a good sign,” said senior captain Heather Kaluzniak, who assisted on two of the team’s three goals. “We felt like we were in it, and you can tell we are better than a year ago, mainly because we didn’t have to start from ground zero. We have something to build on.”

The foundation was dug in last year. The co-op was announced in the spring of 2011, and Gray was hired over the summer to coach the team.

He joked that he’s already ahead of last year’s curve because he “knows all the kids names,” but in all seriousness, the group is light years ahead of where it was at this point last season.

“As far as just being able to play, just the normal schemes of hockey, we are so much farther ahead,” Gray said. “Now it is just a matter of continuing doing what we are doing. We’ve spent a lot of time on our skill development, and we’ll continue with that. Overall, we just know the girls better. We know their strengths and weaknesses a lot better than we did 12 months ago.”

The team returns the bulk of its scoring from a year ago, including juniors Marissa Odell (15 goals), Mari Verbeten (15 points) and Emma Terres (13 points).

Both goaltenders also return, along with most of the blueline.

“We have the experience,” said junior Zoe Smith, who scored six goals last year. “And we are stronger as a team. There was a lot of effort put in this summer.”

The effort will be a must in the winter as well, mainly due to a schedule that offers little breaks.

Eden Prairie is a perennial state power. The girls opened the conference season at home against highly-regarded Blaine Nov. 13, and then play at Shakopee Thursday, Nov. 15 before returning home to host Elk River at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 at the New Hope Ice Arena.

There is also a two-game tournament at New Prague on the early portion of the schedule, as well as the regular gauntlet of Northwest Suburban Conference games.

“There is nothing easy about our schedule, but that is fine,” said Gray. “We want to be challenged.”