The Laurentian Voyageurs women's hockey team have proven that they can play with the big dogs of the OUA (Ontario University Athletics).
In each of the past two seasons, the L.U. crew have taken one the top seeded teams in the league, Nipissing (2017) and Guelph (2016) respectively, right to the wire in their best of three first round playoff series.
Now the time has come for the locals to find that little bit of extra consistency, from start to finish of their 24-game schedule, to avoid missing out on those few critical points that leave the Voyageurs longing for home ice advantage once post-season play arrives.
Laurentian finished the 2016-2017 campaign with a record of 11-1-10-2 (W-OTW-L-OTL), good for 37 points. A mere five extra points would have propelled the blue and gold into fourth place, looking up at only Nipissing, Guelph and the University of Toronto.
"It's a matter of going 100 per cent into each and every period," said fourth-year blueliner Sara Habal. "Sometimes, our team seems to take a dip in the second period."
With 70 career games on her resumé, Habal understands the need to carry the intensity with which the Voyageurs approach some of their outings, right across the entire spectrum of opponents.
"I think when we play Nipissing and Guelph, we just seem to give them a hard fought game, every time," she said. "Those are the games that we like to play the most, it gets everyone amped up about it."
Getting "amped up" is not an issue for fellow defenceman Nicole Vigilanti. A native of Woodbridge and graduate of the Oakville Hornets PWHL program, Vigilanti has racked up 168 minutes in penalties over the course of her four years in Sudbury.
"I would say that I've matured a lot, even with the penalties," Vigilanti said. "Knowing when it's necessary, when it's not necessary. You can't just go in and take her out. You need to angle her into the boards and pin her against the boards. It's the difference between body contact and body checking."
One of a handful of players who have been with the team since it's inception in 2013-2014, Vigilanti notices a clear-cut difference between the squad that will open the upcoming season and the one that initially raised the curtain, for the program, a few years back.
"The first few years, we were a grinding team," she said. "We went out there and had no expectations. We played hard. If we lost and it was a close game, it was technically a win in our books. Now that we have the previous years under our belt, we are building forward."
There is little doubt that coach Stacey Colarossi will lean heavily on her vets to lead this process, including the likes of 20 year old Taylor Weber, who expects to return for one more kick at the can, next year, all while completing the Concurrent Ed portion on the heels of her SPED (Sport and Physical Education) degree.
"As a fourth year, you know where you stand, you know your role on the team," said Weber. "You have your routines, you come in here a lot more comfortable. As a rookie, you need to ask a lot of questions, try new things. You spend the whole year trying to figure out where you fit in. Keep an open mind and try and enjoy yourself," said the 5'5" forward from Mount Forest.
There is no disputing the parity of this league. Each and every one of the Voyageurs' final eight setbacks in regular season play last year came by a margin of just one goal.
"Our league is so tight, it's unbelievable," said Weber.
"Anyone can beat anyone. The last place team can beat the first place team. You don't want to go in and beat a team 8-0. I mean yes, it's fun, but it's more fun to be in a close game where every shift counts."
And those close games are exactly where Laurentian is likely to focus their efforts, forcing a few more to overtime, emerging with an O/T or shootout win a little more often, and positioning themselves well for their first really solid run in the playoffs.
The Voyageurs have added an interesting twist to their 2017-2018 schedule, facing NCAA opponents in pre-season play for the very first time. Colarossi and company are sure to be in tough on the weekend of September 22nd to 24th, battling the Boston College Eagles, Providence Friars and Holy Cross Crusaders.
The team will be back at home on September 29th, welcoming the Ottawa Gee Gees and their solid stable of Sudbury athletes to town, with regular season play kicking off Oct. 21 and 22 against the Western Mustangs and Windsor Lancers.