The Central Wisconsin Storm begins defense of its WIAA state girls hockey title Saturday against the University School of Milwaukee with a much different look than the squad that celebrated on the ice of Veterans Memorial Coliseum just over eight months ago.
The Storm graduated nine seniors from that team, and Denny Drake stepped down as coach in August and was replaced by former assistant Jana Jurkovich.
Despite the changes, one thing remains the same with the team.
"Every year is a different year, but we always say that we play with our heart," said senior forward Claire Poirier, a co-captain along with Kylie Gazzolo. "No matter what the situation is, we're going to try our best. We always come together as a team."
Jurkovich worked primarily with the Storm defensemen the past three years, and also is a former volunteer assistant with the junior varsity program. The familiarity between Jukovich and the players makes the transition an easier one from Drake, who led the Storm to five straight state tournaments and two bookend titles.
"It was said to have (Drake) leave, but we all know that (Jurkovich) is going to do a really good job. She knows us and we know her, and we're comfortable with her, which is really good," said Gazzolo, who finished with 20 goals and 33 points last season and is in position to become the program's all-time leading scorer this year. "She's going to run some of the same things. It's good to have that comfort level."
The Storm might not have a comfort level on the ice early as the team graduated five of its top six scorers as well as goalie Kristine Fonti, who won 19 games last year and had more than 1,000 minutes in the net. The vacancies present some opportunities for some new or returning players to step up or have an expanded role this season.
"We lost a lot of seniors, and the returning players are going to miss them," Gazzolo said. "It's a new year and a new group of girls. I know the underclassmen and the freshmen coming in have been working really hard to try and fill the spots. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out. I think definitely the first few months we're going to have to see how everyone fits and how we work together, and based on that, we will go from there."
The team enters with a bull's eye on its back, given what was accomplished last season. The team has the goal of a return trip to Madison, but knows there's a lot of work to be done from now until the start of the postseason.
"A lot of girls told me that they were counting down the days to the first practice and were so excited to come to practice. I think since we won state, the excitement builds a little more," Poirier said. "Then again, we know what we have to do. We set our goals, but talked about how we need to focus on the first game, and what individuals can do to get better. We are thinking about the long run, but are focusing more on short term right now because good things just don't happen overnight."