No one inside Amsoil Arena has been awaiting the return of college hockey longer than Naomi Rogge.
The redshirt junior forward for the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team suffered a non-hockey related, season-ending knee injury just before the start of 2019-20 and has now endured a two-month delay to 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Upon finally hearing a start date from her coach two weeks ago for 2020-21, Rogge admitted it gave her “goosebumps.”
“I honestly don't even remember the date that it was, but the first day that we were supposed to have a game this season I had it written on my calendar,” said Rogge, who last played on March 8, 2019 in a WCHA Final Faceoff semifinal at Minnesota. “Now to be able to rewrite that date, have it be more official now, it’s super exciting to be able to put a face on something that we've been working on these past couple months during practice.”
While Friday’s 6:05 p.m. season opener for the Bulldogs at Minnesota State-Mankato will be the program’s first game in 257 days, it will be the first in 621 days for Rogge, who is expected to be a key piece of UMD’s quest to return to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs — whose season was ended by Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals rather than by the coronavirus — were close a year ago, finishing as the second-to-last team left out of a tournament that was never played due to COVID-19. To return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016-17 — assuming there is an NCAA tournament this year — the Bulldogs need to step up their offensive production in two ways.
According to head coach Maura Crowell, they need to produce more than the 2.75 goals per game averaged last season, and the depth of that scoring needs to be more balanced as well. Last season, 63.67 percent of the Bulldogs goals and 57.4 percent of the points came from the top four players — Gabbie Hughes, Sydney Brodt, Ashton Bell and Anna Klein.
Rogge’s return to the lineup should help in both areas. She was the team’s leading scorer back in 2017-18 as a freshman — before Hughes arrived — and has produced 20-plus points in each of her first two seasons as a Bulldog.
“She's put herself in a great position. I’m really happy with how far she's come. She's going to make a impact this year,” Crowell said of Rogge coming back from her knee injury. “I don't see any hesitancy, I don't see any fear in her eyes. Now she might have it, but then she's doing a good job faking it. The product that she's putting out there is showing me that she's doing fine.”
Crowell said Rogge will be a different player than she was during her first two seasons at UMD, one that will be more dangerous in different areas on the ice. And she’s had the extended preseason to adapt to that new style, and to test out her surgically repaired knee.
“I have to be a smarter player with the puck,” Rogge said. “I can't rely on my body size maybe as much, or my speed. I have to rely on being able to pass through someone's feet or underneath someone’s stick. I have to be a little bit more creative in that sense and maybe have better puck protection as well because it may be easier to catch me.
“I know my foot speed is not as much as it was freshman or sophomore year because it's still building up. I have to adapt in that sense, but I know what I'm still good at and I can build off that as well.”
Rogge — a winger who says her shot is as good as ever — will start the season on a line with junior center Kylie Hanley and freshman wing Clara Van Wieren, two players who are also expected to help add some balance to the Bulldogs’ scoresheet. Van Wieren, of Okemos, Michigan, is one of just two freshmen Crowell said will be among the top nine forwards along with Katie Davis of Boise, Idaho. Hanley is coming off an 18-point sophomore season that saw her tally 11 points after Christmas last year, including four goals and three assists in the final 10 games.
UMD’s top line will consist of Klein, a senior wing; Hughes, a junior center; and junior wing Anneke Linser, with Linser taking the spot formerly occupied by Brodt, who graduated. Like Hanley, Klein had a big second half last year, totaling 15 of her 27 points after Christmas, including four goals and seven assists in the last 10 games.
Hughes — a linemate with Linser in high school at Centennial and again as freshmen at UMD — was a top-10 scorer nationally and a top-five scorer in the WCHA last season while leading UMD with 20 goals and 51 points in 35 games. While not the fastest player, Crowell said the way Hughes uses her body and edges of her skates makes her a constant scoring threat.
But Crowell notes Hughes is also a good complementary player too, one who defines the cliché of making everyone else around her better.
“She wants to put this team on our back and take us to places we haven't been in a little while. That pressure for her is power,” Crowell said. “She is used to that pressure and being in the limelight. I think it’s good for her. She seems to thrive there.”
Crowell said Hughes — who recently took part in the U.S. Women’s National Team camp in Blaine, Minnesota — should be in the conversation for the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award this season, as should Bulldogs senior defenseman Ashton Bell.
UMD’s captain and a Canadian Women’s National Team prospect, Bell is coming off a transitional season in 2019-20, playing defenseman for the first time after playing her first two years at UMD as a forward.
In her first crack at defense, Bell led all WCHA blueliners in scoring with 11 goals and 32 points — numbers that ranked in the top 10 nationally as well.
“She's dominant back there,” Crowell said of the preseason All-WCHA selection. “Her feet are so good. That lateral movement across the blue line is tough to learn. And the way she moves across the blue line now is even better, faster, more efficient than it was last year. Her power is better. I really like her shot from the blue line. She shows a little more confidence with that now.
“Everything in her game has improved. And that is really exciting to see.”
Playing in front of first-year starting goaltender Emma Soderberg, a junior, Bell will lead what Crowell called an “experienced,” “tough” and “battle-tested” blue line that only loses co-captain Jalyn Elmes from a year ago. Taking her spot is freshman Nina Jobst-Smith of North Vancouver, British Columbia, who Crowell described as a smart, puck-moving defenseman with good feet.
That group may not score goals at the rate Hughes, Klein and Rogge can, but they should add plenty of assists this season.
“It’s really a game-changer when you have a defenseman on the blue line that a knows a lot about the offensive side of the game as well,” Hughes said. “It just keeps things flowing in there.”
Coming Friday: Bulldogs junior goaltender Emma Soderberg has her sights set on playing in the 2022 Winter Olympics with Sweden, but first she’ll attempt to take over the net once occupied by U.S. Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney.