Previewing the St. Olaf winter sports season

Men’s hockey returns to the ice after a lackluster 2015-16 season in which it went 4-8-4, finishing seventh in the MIAC. Led by new head coach Mike Eaves, the young Oles must fortify their defensive efforts if they want to win their first conference title since 2009. St. Olaf had a higher shot percentage than its opponents last season, but that doesn’t matter when you surrender 936 shots on goal and allow 66 goals in conference games, the second most in the MIAC. The Oles must play better team defense to relieve some pressure from improving starting goalie Eric Hancock ’19 if they hope to make Eaves’ first season as head coach a fruitful one.

Women’s hockey faces a similar problem, having allowed 63 goals in conference last season, 10 more than the next highest total. However, they must dig themselves out of an arguably greater hole, having won only three total games during the last two seasons combined, and only one of those victories came against a conference opponent. The good news is that last winter was largely a developmental season for St. Olaf, featuring a young team that remains essentially intact after losing only one senior to graduation. Top scorer Jane Vezina ’18, who had 12 goals, and Megan Skelly ’17, who led the team with 10 assists a year ago, highlight a squad that could finally come into its own in the early months of 2017, provided the defense sees a dramatic improvement. Early signs this past week are encouraging. St. Olaf already has its first victory of the season, a 2-0 win in the home opener against University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Though it’s early in the season, goalie Cassie Alexander ’17 tops the MIAC with zero goals allowed, and she issued a 28-save shutout in St. Olaf’s first win since Feb. 5, 2016.

Women’s basketball will try to leap above its own struggles, having plateaued at a consistent winning percentage hovering around .500 since a 17-9, fourth place finish back in 2011-12. The Oles were well on their way to a winning season before dropping their final four conference games last winter, finishing ninth in the MIAC, their worst final placing since 2009-10. Led by veteran Betsey Daly ’17, who headlined the team’s statline last winter with 12.8 points per game, 8.4 rebounds per game and 320 total points scored, the 2016-17 team features 13 underclassmen on the 15-woman roster, an extremely young team that could go one of two ways this season. If breakout scorer Makenna Ash ’19 can continue her ascent to stardom, building on her team-leading .513 fieldgoal percentage and 18 blocks to assist Daly, St. Olaf will have a great young core to build around for seasons to come, accompanying men’s basketball as an Ole playoff hopeful. If not, and if no incoming first years emerge to help carry the weight in a loaded conference that touted four teams with five or fewer MIAC losses in 2015, the Oles will be looking at their third consecutive losing season.

Four members of the Ole men’s swimming team were named Preseason All-Conference back in September after leading St. Olaf to third place in the 2016 MIAC Championships. John Loepfe ’20, Nick Wilkerson ’17, Bobby Schultze ’17 and Jack Welsh ’19 bring lofty expectations into this winter, but considering that the latter three were already named All-Conference at the end of last season, they should have no trouble meeting them. Claire Walters ’17 and newcomer Helen Jensen ’20 headline the women’s team, also having been named Preseason All-Conference, giving the Ole women a great mix of veteran leadership and incoming talent with enormous potential that should allow them to replicate, if not surpass, their third place finish in the conference a year ago. St. Olaf swimming usually performs admirably, but the 2016-17 season has potential to be particularly special.