Defending champion Griffins kick off new season aiming for a repeat

Courtney Zajac, left, Sydney Thomlison and Shanya Shwetz pose with the trophy and banner after knocking off the SAIT Trojans last March to claim the Griffins' first ACAC Championship since 2008 (Nick Kuiper photo).
Courtney Zajac, left, Sydney Thomlison and Shanya Shwetz pose with the trophy and banner after knocking off the SAIT Trojans last March to claim the Griffins' first ACAC Championship since 2008 (Nick Kuiper photo).

Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Lindsay McAlpine has a fair amount of experience being a part of a team that's starting a season with a target on their backs.

The MacEwan Griffins women's hockey head coach was a part of five national championship University of Alberta Pandas hockey teams as a player.

When her defending ACAC champion Griffins open the 2017-18 season with a home-and-home series against Red Deer College on Thursday (7 p.m., at RDC) and Friday (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena), they would do well to lean on her advice.

"I think the biggest thing in the women's game is not focusing on that end result; we've got to get there first," she said of the game-by-game process. "But also, I think the confidence and the mental aspect of (being the defending champs) – you can use to your advantage. If we come into the rink confident knowing we're the team to beat, I think that will actually help us, rather than letting the other team set the tone of the game."

MacEwan will unveil the Griffins' 2016-17 championship banner in a pre-game ceremony on Friday before the team moves forward on a new campaign.

With the majority of their roster back, bolstered by a small, but stellar, recruiting class, the window for another Griffins' championship is very much wide open.

"I think our girls would be disappointed if we didn't put ourselves in contention for a championship again," said McAlpine, who is the reigning ACAC coach of the year. "That being said, I know that we're the team to beat now. I think it's always harder to stay on top than it is to get there for the first time.

"What's nice for me as a coach is I can start off kind of where we finished. We've got to reset with some our tactical game and make adjustments to the plan, but you can kind of start from where you finished and just build off of what that was."

The Griffins lost only three players from last year's championship squad – Courtney Zajac, Hannah Kostiuk and Jenna Thompson. That means the likes of MVP goalie Sandy Heim, playoff MVP forward Morgan Casson and captain Sydney Thomlison, among other major contributors, are back in the fold.

Casson, who scored the golden goal that clinched the title for MacEwan in Game 4 of the ACAC Championship at SAIT last March, is hurt at the moment and won't be in the lineup this weekend, but she's a player McAlpine is expecting big things from.

"Morgan Casson finished off on a very high note for us in the playoff run and second half of the season," she said. "She's a player I'd put some pressure on to be as successful as the previous year."

Also looking very strong through the Griffins' eight-game preseason slate was Jessi Rampton, who is thriving in a move to centre.

"I think she'll be a player to watch for," said McAlpine. "She's become dangerous both offensively and defensively. We've put her in the centre role. I think she's going to impact the game a lot from there."

On defence, sophomore Kyrelle Skoye has played her way into a top-four role.

"She's a player that for me last year was a fifth to seventh D – she was fighting for a spot in the lineup," said the coach. "But she really surged in the second half of the year and picked up where she finished last year."

A few rookies in McAlpine's recruiting class are also ready to make an immediate impact.

Rookie goaltender Natalie Bender played Midget AAA in St. Albert before suiting up in the Alberta junior female hockey league last season with Fort Saskatchewan.

"I think she'll definitely push Sandy in the role that she's in," said McAlpine of the multi-sport athlete who represented Alberta in softball at the Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.

"She just has a great team energy with a willingness to learn."

Defenceman Tessa Mitchell was the captain of Lloydminster's Midget AAA entry last season and looks to already have a spot on one of the Griffins' powerplay units.

"She has a big powerful shot for us," said McAlpine. "Arguably one of the strongest shots on our team. She's really deceptive – plays an offensive defenceman role, so she'll be a player to watch for us."

Keely Vachon helped the St. Albert Slash win the Canadian Midget AAA women's championship in 2016-17.

"She's a defensively-minded defenceman – very good on the body, smart positionally, great first pass," said the coach. "So she'll be someone we're looking to as a steady go-to defenceman."

Forward Amanda Murray out of the Edmonton Pandas Midget AAA program has a shot at playing regular minutes on a veteran roster.

"(Amanda's) come in and kind of solidified a role as a third-fourth line centre," said McAlpine.  "She's a good two-way centre, so she plays a good offensive game. I'm expecting to hopefully have her create a little offence as she grows into that role."

Red Deer's Beth Taylor brings so much speed that she reminds McAlpine of a player they had last year.

"The most comparable player to her would be Courtney Zajac in terms of speed," she said. "She's a good fore-checking forward, a more defensively-minded forward."