Stephanie Sustercich has some big skates to fill.
The first-year head coach of the Brainerd/Little Falls Flying Warriors assumes the reigns of a program that last season won its first Central Lakes Conference championship along with a program-high 17 games.
As the Flying Warriors prepare to open their season Friday night at Crookston and Saturday afternoon at East Grand Forks they must replace four of the top six scorers, starting goaltender Kierra Howard and two defensemen.
“We’re going to continue with our hard work ethic,” Sustercich said. “We’re still putting some pieces of the puzzle together with some new kids so we’ll see how that's all going to work. We’ve got so many new kids it's kind of wait and see.
“For the most part, we’ve got a game plan and the kids are excited. They have high energy on the rink and in the locker room. We’re looking forward to playing Crookston and East Grand Forks. We’ll take each game as it comes and play each game to the best of our ability.”
Leading scorer Sierra “CC” Hanowski, a junior, has transferred to Warroad, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 1A, has won the last two state titles and was runner-up in 2009 and 2006.
“I support CC's decision in moving ahead and pushing her hockey career forward,” Sustercich said. “I hope she does very well because it’s a big sacrifice to move away from home and your home team. Her goal is to play college hockey, and she's moving toward that goal.”
The Warriors return 13 players from last year, a group led by senior captains Katie Benson (forward), Jodi Bertrand (goalie) and forward Zoe Wolhart.
Juniors back include forward Emily Stark (4 goals, 5 assists), who will join the team after this weekend’s state swim meet, Maren Brown (F), Alayna Ernster (F), Tiffany Smith (F-D), Cayla Strickland (D) and defender Eryn Dahl (1 goal, 6 assists).
Sophomores returning include Paige Oakley (F), Emma Whiteman (F), Kristina Anderson (D, 3 assists) and defender Tory Brown (3 assists).
Bertrand is scheduled to start in goal after backing up Howard for two years. Bertrand played in five games last season, totaling 182 minutes, and compiled a 3-1-0 record, 2.80 goals-against average and .853 save percentage.
“Jodi stepped up in a big game against Alexandria, which we won,” Sustercich said. “She definitely stepped up to the plate.”
Kayli Scammahorn and Natalie Berens are back-up goalies.
Wolhart is the leading returning scorer (16 goals, 11 assists). She trailed Hanowski’s 41 points and graduate Lizzy Desrocher’s 39. Maren Brown, the fifth-leading scorer, contributed 11 goals and eight assists.
“We’re looking at Wolhart and Maren Brown to put the puck away,” Sustercich said. “Oakley is really fast. (Sophomore) Sara Wennerstrand we feel will be a nice addition to our forward lines.
“Oakley played a lot on the JV, along with Alayna Ernster and Emma Whiteman. We’re looking to see them bring a new level to their hockey.
“Mari Beth Thayer is going to be new to the forward lines. She’s got a nice presence on the ice. She’s very strong.”
On defense, Sustercich said CJ Kendall is an “up and coming freshman.”
“Our defense should be strong with the addition of CJ,” Sustercich added. “She’s definitely going to be a force on the back row. She’s definitely a complete player. We’ll play her as a forward or as a defenseman. She’s going to excel at both.
“Tory Brown, Anderson, and Strickland will round out our top four defenseman and we’re waiting for Dahl (injured) to return.”
Sustercich said the 38 girls on the roster are the team’s most since 2000 when Brainerd had 34. She said the 15 sophomores are the most in program history. And, this year’s team includes seven players from Little Falls.
A long-time assistant, Sustercich said the biggest change in moving up to become head coach are the administrative duties.
“That part is very heavy,” she said. “The Minnesota State High School League has more requirements on head coaches, but when I get to the rink I push the papers aside. When I’m on the ice it's all about the kids, the team, what we want to achieve this year and the steps we're taking to get there.”
Seniors: Katie Benson (F), Kali Wolhart (F), Zoe Wolhart (F), Jodi Bertrand (G)
Juniors: Alayna Ernster (F), Eryn Dahl (D), Cayla Strickland (D), Tiffany Smith (F), Emily Stark (F), Maren Brown (F)
Sophomores: Natalie Berens (G), Tory Brown (D), Kristina Anderson (D), Mari Beth Thayer (F), Sarah Wennerstrand (F), Gretchen Gramer (D), Taylor Cadwell (F), Emma Whiteman (F), Paige Oakley (F), Kendra Ciesco (F), Kayli Scammahorn ( G), Miranda Reed (F), Karli Ring (F), Kayla Kurowski (F), Miranda Zilka (F)
Freshmen: CJ Kendall (D), Lexy White (F), Kelsey Zuk (F), Kalli Kalpakoff (G), Mariah Lennander (F), Erica Swanson (F), Haley Schumacher (F)
Eighth-graders: Maddie Ellingson (F), Calihan Yliniemi (F), Alexa Magnan (F), Kate Campion (F), Brooke Mimmack (F), Fallon Yates (G)
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.