The Northland Pines girls hockey team will return a large group of returning letter winners to this year’s team under first-year head coach Jeff Stebbeds.

One of the things Stebbeds said he and his staff are looking most forward to early this season is getting back into the swing of things as once again the Pines team looks to weave its way through an always tough schedule.

“One of the most visible strengths that we have right out of the gate is the fact that we have several returning letter winners from last year,” said Stebbeds. “Even though this is our first year back with this group, myself and this staff has coached the majority of these girls all the way through the youth program. Most of the girls know we demand a good work ethic with a never give up attitude.”

Stebbeds knows that in any sport, the season is a marathon and not a sprint. But it seems even more so that way in hockey he said.

“We’ll see how the first game goes against the Central Wisconsin Storm, and make adjustments from there,” he said. “We need to just take one game at a time and get stronger as a team. The girls know that each player has a role in the team. If they learn to trust that everyone performs in their role, it will help us be stronger as a team. With our schedule, we want to be playing our best hockey as we approach the playoffs.”

Things started slow offensively for the Pines team this past weekend, dropping their season opener to the Storm, 8-1.

“We had several breakdowns in our defensive zone that led to some goals for the Storm early on. We also got into trouble with penalties,” said Stebbeds. “Despite the score, the girls worked hard and never quit skating. The attitudes of these girls was to keep working and good things will happen. They know they will improve every game.”

Stebbeds said that is the case in most any sport.

“You want the team to constantly improve daily,” he said. “We keep telling the girls to work to achieve small goals, and this will set us up for success to achieve our long term goals. We have a very tough schedule for a reason. This will push our girls all season, and when playoffs get here, in the girls eyes, it will just be another game to tend to business.”

With most every high school girls hockey program continuing to co-op with neighboring districts, Pines continues to go alone as numbers within their youth programs keep bolstering the high school roster year after year.

“It’s become a characteristic that this team has come to deal with. Just knowing we are one of the smallest teams in the State,” he said. “These girls do not have that ‘poor me’ attitude. They play the game as a team knowing that if adversity slaps us in the face, we slap it right back. They have a chip on their shoulder. If someone makes a mistake on the team, another girl will pick them up and get ready for the next play.”

Returning this season for Pines will be letter winners Cassidy Sternhagen, Grace Wittkopf, Ashlynn Boxrucker, Jenna Uhrine, Madison Stebbeds, Hailey Krznarich, Hannah Castillo, Donna Lotzer, Julia Nesbitt, Mallory Schmidt, Madelyn Harris, Halle Kerner and Megan Ritzer.

Madison Stebbeds led the team in scoring a year ago with 20 points. Wittkopf was third (14) while Schmidt also was an impact player on offense, finishing her season with five goals and seven assists in 16 games.

Defensively the team will be looking to Boxrucker in goal along with Jenna Uhrine. Overall Stebbeds feels his team is deep and can score from a variety of ways while also playing solid team defense.

“I expect good things from many players offensively and defensively,” said coach Stebbeds. “The girls on this team know that when everyone does their job good things happen. I don’t like to just focus on one or two girls. When a player scores, it is because several other players did something good to make it happen.”

The team will get another taste of tough competition this coming weekend following Thanksgiving as they head to Hartland to take part in a tournament with the Cap City Cougars, Rock County and Metro Lynx. After that the team will return home to start the month of December, facing off with area rival Northern Edge in Eagle River, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m.