Cardinals open year at Albert Lea

RETURN TO THE ICE — Members of the 2017-18 Fairmont Area Cardinals girls hockey team set for tonight’s season-opener at Albert Lea include, front row (l-r): Alexis Newville, Brooklyn Meyer, Emily O’Connor, manager Kady Pedroza, Rachel O’Connor, Macy Militello, Tegan Roskop and Emily Sokoloski. Back row: Mackenzie Householder, Leah Petersen, Anna Nordquist, assistant coach Eric Householder, head coach Ashley Olson, Joni Becker, Jonissa Neitzel and Erica Serna. (Photo by Charlie Sorrells)

FAIRMONT — As a former player and now head coach of the Fairmont Area Cardinals girls hockey team, Ashley Olson has noticed a pattern in the rise and fall of the program numbers. Although the second-year head coach has 12 skaters and two goalies, the amount of younger talent is on the rise.

“The building of this program is definitely happening right now,” Olson said. “Looking kind of shorter long-term future, at the youth program right now, I have 12 (girls) at the 12U level and I also have 7 or 8 girls at the Squirt level. Projecting out a few years, this girls side of the program is definitely growing and has some potential.”

Currently, this year’s team has only one senior in Emily O’Connor and two juniors in Anna Nordquist and Erica Serna. The rest of the team is predominately eighth- or ninth-graders with little to no experience at the varsity level.

As a result, the Cardinals will depend on the leadership of those with the most experience.

“I’m really going to be counting on some of my returning players — Mackenzie Householder, Emily O’Connor in the net and (sophomore) Joni Becker and Anna Nordquist up front,” Olson said. “(We have) a lot of new bodies, not only moving up, but I also have two this year that are new to hockey and one that was new to hockey last year returning.

“So, the experience is kind of lacking. We’re just focusing on what we can do as individuals to grow to help contribute to what the needs of the team are.”

Emily O’Connor will start in goal for the Cardinals after sharing the tending duties with graduated senior Sadie Sandersfeld last season. Despite suffering some illness, O’Connor is expected to be healthy and ready to go for tonight’s season-opener at Albert Lea.

“I know she did some goalie camps over the summer and has been working hard, stepping up as a leader on and off the ice, so I’m looking for big things for her in the net,” Olson said.

Like with any season-opener, tonight’s game will help to gauge the team’s conditioning and serve as an early evaluation of the team.

“We’ll definitely see how conditioned we are in these first two weeks,” Olson said. “After the game (tonight) against Albert Lea, we’ll be able to see where we need to continue working with some of that strategy on the ice.

“This year, I’m really focusing, in my one-on-one meetings, on where each individual can learn and grow to help the team put together our strengths.”

While the team’s early, most obvious weakness is its lack of experience, the biggest strength is its talent. Defenders Macy Militello and Householder are only eighth-graders, but contributed to last year’s team that finished 9-14-2, scoring their first career goals.

“Even though that talent was there, it was maybe on the side to what we had with the senior group,” Olson said. “This year, they’re really going to have to step up and use that.

“It’s nice to have that in such young players because we can use that talent with Mackenzie and Macy to build the team moving forward.”

Fairmont Area starts the season with two of its 12 road games before its home opener against Windom Area on Tuesday night. In total, only nine of its games on the season are at home.

“I think it’s just a little more exhausting for the girls to be on the bus so much and late nights, but again, it’s a young group and I think we’ll pull through,” Olson said.