|Meet the New Gophers|
The lifeblood of the Gophers is the group of young women that arrives on the Minnesota campus each autumn with big dreams and the willingness to work to realize them. The first three shared some thoughts with us prior to their first collegiate road series in Madison, while the last two spoke after the New Hampshire games.
Photos courtesy University of Minnesota
When watching the youngest of the youth teams conduct a brief scrimmage before the Zamboni resurfaces the ice for the next period of a Minnesota game, it is hard to envision our accomplished Gophers at that stage of their development. At least it is until one little girl zips into a cluster, emerges with the puck, flies down the ice with her ponytail and other players trailing behind, as some band members chant, “Future Gopher!”
“When I was like probably three or so, my mom and my dad put me on skates—on little double blades,” forward Rachael Bona said. “So I started like that. My brother played hockey, so I did everything he did. So that’s how I started. Then in kindergarten, I got on my first real team.”
Bit by bit, players and their games become more watchable, until
even those not related to them are interested. By the time Bona and her teammates for the Coon Rapids Cardinals made their run to a third-place finish at the Minnesota Class AA High School Tournament, they had attracted a boisterous student following.
“I couldn’t really believe the crowds we had my senior year,” she said. “I don’t know what happened—something just sparked up at school. People started talking. We created a Facebook page for our high school team. We just asked kids to come to our games. They knew we were going to be good that year, so we started getting kids coming around school, and it started going around like, ‘Oh, girls’ hockey tonight.’ Everyone started coming.”
While pumping up enthusiasm for her high school team, Bona was selecting a college.
“I was looking at a lot of schools in the WCHA, and I was looking out east at Harvard and stuff, but I’ve always wanted to come to Minnesota,” she said.
“I’ve always dreamed of coming here. You get a good education as well as a great hockey team and a great hockey program. I liked the coaches, I liked being close to home—all of that kind of played into my choice.”
Beyond a few early butterflies, Bona is adjusting well to Minnesota.
“I think it’s kind of expected to be nervous for your first college game, but once you got out there—I think I was the most nervous for my first shift, but once I had a couple shifts, I was good to go.”
Illness and injury to other forwards has caused some lineup fluctuation, affecting where Bona lines up each week.
“At the beginning, my first two games, I was playing wing, and I played wing my ninth and tenth grade year, and I’m now playing center, which is fine with me,” Bona said. “I’m really okay with anything. I think that we should be able to play wing and center no matter what. Whatever role they want to throw me in, I think I can adapt to it pretty well.”
Coach Brad Frost says Bona has good hockey instincts.
“She’s very crafty, has great hands, has a good shot,” Frost said. “She’s a really slippery player, but she’s got a great head for the game and knows the space to jump into. With her size—she’s not small, but she’s certainly not big either—you need to have that innate awareness of where to go on the ice to get the puck and be in a position to do something with it.”
In her first road game in Madison, Bona applied those skills and scored her first collegiate goal against the top-ranked Badgers.
“I think she’s grasped things pretty well, so far for us, which is good to see,” Frost said.
As with any student athlete, there is much to grasp off the ice as well.
“I would like to go into the medical field,” Bona said. “I’m looking at physician’s assistant, so I’m not sure what major I’m going to choose yet, because you can choose a lot of different things to do that. I’m not sure yet, but that’s the path I want to take.”
She hopes that by the time she graduates from Minnesota, fans come to know her as a hard worker who puts the team before herself. But for now, the question is how to get that same buzz and support at Ridder Arena that she had at Coon Rapids High.
“I would love to have a section like that here,” Bona said. “Some of my friends from high school go here, and they came to a few games, but it’s hard to get crowds like that, because in high school, you know everybody and everybody knows you. It’s such a big campus here that it’s hard to have those relationships with people. Anything we could do to get a crowd like that would be unreal.”
Sometimes the question of how a player got started playing hockey isn’t much of a question at all. When your father has won an Olympic gold medal and played and coached in the NHL, family routines will lead you to the rink and genetics will favor you once there. But as for how Rachel Ramsey decided to take her hockey-playing talents to her father’s alma mater, Minnesota, let’s hear from the rookie defenseman herself.
“I kind of looked at other WCHA schools, just being a Minnesota kid and wanting to stay in the WCHA, in the area,” Ramsey said. “Probably obviously it would be Wisconsin, North Dakota, and those schools, but none of them were even close to Minnesota for me, ever. Growing up as a Minnesota kid, I wanted to play here and to be a Gopher. As soon as I got an offer to play here, I didn’t have to think twice.”
When moving up a level, most student athletes must do more thinking, on and off the ice.
“A lot of it was as I expected,” Ramsey said. “School is relatively hard, as expected, and the level of play is a lot faster, as I expected. I think a lot of it you kind of know coming in, but it’s just really adjusting to it.”
Adaptation is easier when one possesses a bounty of talent.
“She’s very skilled,” coach Brad Frost said. “She gets out there, and she’s six feet tall and looks like a lot of our other defensemen, but there is still some high-schoolness in her game. Whether it’s passing the puck hard, or throwing things softly on her backhand, or whatever. Just playing the D-zone is completely different. She could get beat in high school and still recover because of her speed and her length, and now it’s a little more difficult. She’s been doing very well for us early on here, but there’s still definitely some parts of her game that need to grow.”
On the Minnesota blue line, Ramsey is surrounded by people who can mentor her.
“We have an amazing group of defenders, and I’ve been blessed to learn from them so far, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season holds as far as that goes,” she said.
And if the tutoring of her partners on defense isn’t enough, Ramsey has an All-American goalie in Noora Räty playing behind her.
“She communicates a lot, which my goaltender, Julie Friend, whom we played [versus St. Cloud State], did quite a bit in high school, but Noora lets me know when I mess up, which is a good thing,” Ramsey said. “It’s been good with her back there, because she lets me know when I’m doing something right and wrong, and I’m learning from it.”
Mira Jalosuo once said that Räty communicates with her in Finnish around the Minnesota net. I asked Ramsey if she is able to understand what her teammate is telling her.
“I can,” Ramsey said with a laugh. “I sit next to Mira in the locker room, so I’m understanding what they’re saying now. I’m getting there.”
Despite her inexperience and advice coming from all corners, Ramsey is performing just fine. Through six games, her 5 points are second among Minnesota defensemen, and she leads the team with a plus 11. Of course, those few games only hint at what she can become.
“Hopefully, by the time I’m a junior or senior, I’m looked upon as a leader on the team, someone that the team can look to in go-to moments, but I’ve got a long ways to go to get there,” Ramsey said.
College presents a lot of questions to figure out, but four years gives Ramsey time to sort through them.
“My major is undecided so far,” she said. “Probably something in sports management, and maybe a coaching minor. We’ll see as we get down the road here. Otherwise, I’m just trying to soak up the experience here as a freshman and get a little bit of everything outside of hockey. I’m trying to meet some people outside of the hockey team, so that I can kind of have that college experience, as well as getting to play with such a great team here.”
Do you ever wonder how certain kids wound up confined to the goal crease, while the others were free to dart about the ice?
“In mites, everybody kind of took a try at it, and it worked out well for me,” Gophers frosh goaltender Shyler Sletta said. “It was something that my dad wanted me to continue at, because I was pretty good at it. And it just worked out that I ended up doing it for the rest of my life.”
Eventually, that skill took her to Minnesota, where the Gophers were looking to fill the hole left by Jenny Lura’s graduation.
“I looked at a lot of different schools,” Sletta said. “I looked out east at various schools. Being here in Minnesota, I’ve never really had the ambition to move. It’s a great state; it’s the State of Hockey. I really loved it here on campus when I came up for my visit. I could feel like I was at home being at school here. It’s like being really close to my family. That made a huge, huge factor in why I came here—that I’m very tight with my family. It’s nice to be around them and to see them on the weekends.”
The Gophers offered a role that was far from glamorous.
“She was brought in as the third-string goaltender, with the message that ‘I’m not sure if you’ll ever get in a game or not, when you have Noora and Alyssa Grogan, two experienced goaltenders ahead of you,’” Coach Frost said.
“Obviously, things change, and sometimes you can’t anticipate that. With Alyssa being out, suddenly she’s a backup and seeing a ton of shots in practice, with the opportunity to potentially play a lot for us should Noora get hurt.
“I’ve been really impressed with her progression since she walked in the door, and she has made some great strides and is a great team player for us.”
Frost knows that what is being asked of Sletta is not easy.
“Being ready to play but not playing, yet trying to improve every day in practice just in case your number is called—she’s been handling it well,” he said. “Andy Kent, our goalie coach, has been doing a great job with her. It’s good to see the strides that she’s made.”
Sletta is taking a straightforward approach to the situation and is not trying to make it more than it is.
“I have a belief that physically I’m able to stop every puck, so if I don’t let the mental aspect of the game like being nervous or being worried about it [interfere], then I’m sure I’ll play fine.
“Having Alyssa out is not good, but it’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me as a goalie. I can’t wait to have her back; she needs to come back at some point, but it’s worked out well for me right now.”
She did see her first game action in the St. Cloud State series, and Sletta saved all the shots that she faced.
“Playing goalie isn’t something that I get nervous for,” Sletta said. “With other sports, I sometimes get nervous, but hockey is something that comes pretty easy to me. We do it for a couple of hours every day. It’s hard to find something to be nervous about when you do it every day.”
In the classroom, Sletta is majoring in sports management.
“I would love to work with a sports team or even be an athletic director,” she said. “My passion is sports, obviously. Anything involving that—teaching kids about sports, coaching, and everything—is just my way to give back to the game. That really led me to my major and deciding to work with sports—the game means a lot to me.”
Before it is time to turn to her career, there will be many pucks to stop and an evolution to go through.
“I feel like it’s going to be nice to be known as a part of this team and to leave behind kind of a standard for other people to follow,” Sletta said. “I think it will be great to look back and to remember, ‘Oh, I was that freshman; I didn’t know what to do then.’ But I feel that it will be nice after I’m done to be able to tell people that this is what it was like, and it was an amazing experience, and don’t take it for granted.”
By all indications, this year’s team is one of the deepest, and likely the most talented, Minnesota teams ever. That’s good news—unless, like Stephanie Anderson, you’re one of the newcomers trying to secure playing time.
“The depth is working against Steph to an extent, but it also allows her to be in a position where she can just work hard every day,” Coach Brad Frost says.
“She can get the puck to the net; she can backcheck hard and use her speed to her advantage. She’s continued to progress throughout the year and is getting more and more time as the year goes on.”
Anderson looked at other schools, including Minnesota State and North Dakota, but she wanted to follow in her father, Mike’s, footsteps and become a Gopher.
“It was always a dream of mine to come here,” she says. “Once I came here on my visit, I was just kind of stuck; I couldn’t really choose anywhere else.”
The product of North St. Paul and the Minnesota Thoroughbreds finds herself most recently placed on a line with junior Sam Downey and sophomore Bethany Brausen of nearby Little Canada, someone she’d played with on teams prior to college.
“She and I are starting to click really, really well, and I get along with Sam pretty good,” Anderson says. “We’re doing pretty well, I think. Starting to see each other.”
Playing time can be irregular, but it has been increasing in recent weeks.
“Everyone’s excited on the bench when he says, ‘Roll four lines,’” Anderson says. “It’s a pick-me-up for our line, fourth line: we’ll get out there and do our job and go right back out when we’re called again.”
This is the point of the season when the rookies can hit a bit of a wall,
as the season is two months old but has yet to reach the halfway mark.
“Actually, the past couple weekends, we’ve tried a different preparation, which has helped us a lot,” she says. “Turning our cell phones [off] and warm up a little better. We’re having a lot of fun, so we’re a lot more focused lately.”
Hockey isn’t the only part of the college experience that can get demanding at times.
“It was kind of unexpected—some of the days during the week are really jam packed,” Anderson says.
“You wake up, you go to class, you do your study hours, you got to
go work out, and by that time, it’s practice time. Sometimes you got night class, so those days get a little hard.”
On a team with a strong senior presence, there’s no shortage of teammates offering advice.
“They just tell you to get through it; freshman year is usually the hardest,” Anderson says. “So, just trying to keep the wheels turning.”
She is studying animal science, which comes with a science-heavy curriculum. There too, help from a teammate is never far away.
“[Mira Jalosuo] lives across the hall at Keeler from me, so any questions, I’ll just run over and ask her.”
Anderson hopes to use her degree to become a veterinarian, and she has some ideas about what her patients should look like.
“Small animals, no big animals,” she says.
For now, Anderson is adjusting to wearing maroon and gold on game days.
“I’m still kind of working on the experience part. Still kind of nervous playing out there, I’ll admit. But four years down the line, I want to be that go-to player that Coach is looking for, people to remember me by my speed—could put the puck in the net when she needs to.”
After two years of runs to the state tournament by Irondale High School, Meghan Lorence found herself alone last season as the veteran presence on a young Knights roster. That experience made joining a seasoned Gophers’ squad a novel experience for the wing from Mounds View.
“It’s a big jump, especially since I was leading the team last year,” Lorence says. “It’s a good experience just kind of flipping the coin, and it goes the other way around.”
For her high school team, any line including Lorence automatically became the top line. Now she’s had to adjust to varying roles, usually on the third line with Rachael Bona and either Stephanie Anderson or Becky Kortum, but filling in on the top line when needed.
“It was good skating with the first line during the Wisconsin weekend just to get the feel of things, but that was just a big eye-opener for me and made me realize just how hard I need to work to get up to that level just to keep up with them,” Lorence says. “I’m really enjoying [the third line] and just kind of finding my spot right now.”
Lorence is no stranger to learning from those older than she is on the ice.
“I grew up watching my brother and sister at the rink, so ever since I was a baby. I was just kind of born up at the rinks,” she says. “All my uncles and Mom and Dad played hockey growing up, so it’s kind of in the family.”
Family played a part in her selection of Minnesota, and they’ve helped ease her transition.
“I was looking at other schools, but after I came here, down to visit, it was kind of obvious that I wanted to come here, and it was the right place for me,” Lorence says. “Just being in my hometown and being in front of my own crowd. It was a pretty exciting moment for me.”
“My family is super supportive, so I see them a lot, and they bring me down groceries whenever I need it. So that’s been good. It hasn’t been too hard—just the hockey, I suppose, would be the hardest.”
Even the hockey isn’t proving too difficult for Lorence. She picked up her third assist in the second game at Harvard to go with four goals over the season’s first two months.
“She definitely has a knack for getting to the right place at the right time,” Coach Frost says.
“I think the biggest thing for her, as with most Minnesota freshmen who have played high school hockey, is just the transition to the collegiate game with kids being bigger and faster and stronger. But also just to learn how to play defense and play in the D zone, to move the puck and jump into space to get it back.
“I think she’s progressing well, and I would expect her in the second half to be even better.”
One flaw that Lorence readily admits is being too passive at times on the ice.
“I do find myself doing that quite often, and then I get back to the bench, and I get a reminder of how I need to keep going,” she says.
New position coach Nadine Muzerall is helping her to be more assertive.
“At first, I came in here always wanting to give the puck up, just because I was a freshman,” Lorence says. “But hearing her get under us about shooting all the time, it kind of brought an eye-opener to me and how we just need to shoot the puck whenever we get close to the net.”
Lorence is planning to major in sports management and hopes to pursue a career in coaching and give back to the game of hockey.
But for now, she’s still building her Gopher legacy on the ice as a hard worker, dedicated to both her team and the game.