The timing certainly wasn't lost on John Harrington or Kelsey King. On November 13th, just a week prior to the start of the national early signing period and the same day when five more high school pucksters signed on the dotted line to play college hockey at Minnesota State, one if his current freshman, Kelsey King, was named the WCHA Rookie of the month for October.
That meant it had now been one year since King and her fellow freshman classmates committed to MSU. Now WCHA rookies, Harrington and his staff can only hope this year's new recruits can repeat what King and her classmates have done to this point in their journey.
"It's an exciting day when you know that they are officially becoming a part of our program and then there is that excitement looking forward to when they can finally get on the ice and compete with the rest of your team," Harrington said. "Wondering how they are going to fit in; not only as a player but as a person so that's always an exciting time. We definitely look forward to that after signing day.
"It's really about finding competitive players and finding players who want to be difference makers; players who say to themselves here's an opportunity for me to make my mark and contribute to a program that is trying to work their way up and is trying to climb the ladder. You find those people that have that combination of desire and passion to play and then certainly the skill level has to be there as well. We have been very fortunate to have those players interested in us."
Those players, including King, are one of the major reasons why the future of the MSU women's hockey program seems to get brighter and brighter by the second. On the heels of a stellar 2018-19 recruiting class that helped the Mavericks to a nine-win season last year, six newcomers joined the fray this season and through 12 games this season, Minnesota State has six wins (6-4-2 overall, 2-4-2 WCHA) and is currently riding the wave of a six-game unbeaten streak. King - last week's WCHA Rookie of the Week, leads all league rookies in scoring with 11 points and the honor was already King's second of her freshman year (she earned WCHA Forward of the Week after week one). Nationally, the Elk River, Minn., product is tied for fourth in points and second in assists among newbies.
"We certainly felt Kelsey would make an impact for us when she came in and I think she has from the very first time she started working out for us, before the season got going and the little time we got to be out there with them before the season," explained Harrington. "She is an offensive player so she has the puck a lot but she is also very responsible defensively as well. I think she looks at herself as someone who wants to be a complete player. She is a great offensive player so when she has the puck that's kind of defense in itself."
"It's crazy. It seems just like yesterday I was talking to people about going to play college hockey and now today, here I am playing college hockey," added King. "It's crazy to realize that a short time ago I was sitting there signing papers and now here I am. The minute I got here I recognized just how much higher a level it really was compared to high school hockey. Really being welcomed in the way I have been by the team and having them take me in under their wings, showing me the ropes and how everything works has helped me succeed to this point. Just little things like going through practices, showing me how high-paced everything was and then when you get into the games, starting to learn all of the things that go into playing teams in the WCHA.
"It's arguably the most competitive conference in the country so being shown all those little things and recognizing them and just learning those things from my teammates and coaches," continued King. "There are so many things I have been able to take away from them which has taught me so much and that has helped me perform to the level I have been performing. That feedback and encouragement from them is critical; things like film work and learning all of the little things that go into this game. Every single one of those little things become that much more important when you play at a higher level."
Everything King has done this season has been at a high level and she's not alone. Another member of the Maverick freshman class, Calla Frank, has been writing her own headlines. Competing day after day with one of the best goaltenders in the league in fellow Maverick Abigail Levy, Frank has cracked into the line-up and dazzled. Through MSU's 12 games this season Levy has played six and Frank has played the other half dozen. In those games Frank, the 2019 Let's Play Hockey Minnesota Senior Goalie of the Year last season while playing for White Bear Lake; has posted a goals against average of 2.96 and a save percentage of over 90 percent. With a current record of 3-2-1- including one shutout, Frank has been the perfect partner in crime to Levy. The duo has already posted three shutouts and have allowed just over one goal per game in the Mavericks' six wins.
"I think the idea was we saw last year that Abbie got a little bit tired in the second half of the season. She bounced back to have a good finish but we took that into consideration," Harrington said. "We also felt that Calla needed an opportunity to play. We recruited her to play and she needed a chance to get in there. I think the idea was originally to split them for a while and see how it went but they have both been very good for us, they both understand that they need to get ready to play each weekend and give us their best effort and they have done that. It remains to be seen as we go through the season how things will play out in goal but it's been a good start for both of them."
"Last season (as a high school senior) I had a really good season and was successful so going into the year I was hoping to continue that," Frank said. "Honestly, I love playing with Abbie. She's one of my good friends now and on the ice it's fun. We are both very competitive with one another but we also have that friendship. We cheer each other on but we are also competitive, and we push ourselves to be at our best. I just wanted to work hard, do my best and see what happens. I got a game early and got my first win and then a shutout. I knew it was all about winning so if I kept winning I knew I would be able to play more and things have worked out so far."
Momentum is a great thing, and not just for a player
In addition to King and Frank, players like Charlotte Akervik, Kennedy Bobyck, Lyndsey Howard and Danielle England have added to a train of momentum that has been building at Minnesota State for the past several seasons. Harrington, now in his fifth season as MSU head coach, knew that before he built a winning team on the ice he first had to establish a winning attitude and a culture that appealed to a special bread of player. It's working.
Last season, despite fielding a roster primarily dominated by upperclassmen, Harrington signed five freshman and after skating onto campus, four of the five played in all 35 games. The one who did not - Abigail Levy - played in 34 of them. Her only break between the pipes came in early February 2019. Both Levy and defenseman Anna Wilgren were named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team. Now this season it's more of the same; rookies with the right skill … the right talent … the right attitude and the right amount of confidence.
"In our sport everyone comes in at the same age," explained Harrington. "You don't get players coming from juniors; you don't get older players or more experienced players mixing with younger players, you pretty much get 18-year-olds that come in to play college hockey. I do think though that this group has a confidence about themselves, you can see that. As we watched them and observed them play during their high school careers recruiting them, we noticed that they have that go-to attitude. I think that is the confidence we see and they understand that yes, we can do this. That's what good players do, they have that confidence in themselves that they can compete and produce."
"It's super exciting and I know people are really pumped out about that on this team. Anna (Wilgren), Claire (Butorac), Brittyn (Fleming), Brooke (Bryant), Madison (Oelkers) and all those other girls in last year's class, that was a big thing for me coming in," remarked King. "Learning so much from them; they are so mature as a group and they understood what they needed to do when they came in as freshman and they did a really good job with that process and now they have helped our group mature as a unit a lot faster both in the game of hockey and also the overall environment. That has been a huge help and now everyone is pushing together all in the same direction."
The next direction the Mavs turn will be to the east for a battle with Wisconsin in Madison this weekend. It's a hurdle that Harrington and his squad need to get past if their program truly wants to take that next step and go from a rising program to one that has officially arrived, after all, in 91 total meetings between the two squads, MSU has won only twice. Calla Frank, for one, sees the challenge and embraces it.
"I want to work hard but also enjoy this ride," Frank said. "I think as I work harder and harder the additional milestones will come; things like wins and awards. They are fun but at the time then you need to push it to the back-burner and start working on another one. As we get to one milestone there will always be another one to obtain and that's what we are all shooting for."
The model for building a program.