The ladies are back. After an unceremonious exit eleven years ago, the women’s hockey team has skated to the playoffs, securing first round home ice against UPEI.

In the years leading up to their final season in 2007-08 their highest finish in the standings was fourth. Now, in their first season back, head coach Sarah Hilworth has guided a young team to equal that fourth place finish, a testament to the hard work of her coaching staff and players. Hilworth isn’t satisfied though, even with a young group. She knows their potential can take them much further.

In an interview with The Brunswickan, Hilworth first talked about her thoughts on the regular season. “The girls have done a really good job of figuring out what it’s like to be a student athlete and what it’s like to compete at the U Sport level in their first year.”

She spoke of jumping into a new role in the AUS and trying to prepare against teams in a league that’s new to her. “It’s definitely a challenge,” Hilworth said. “We’ve done a lot of research and a lot of pre-prepping our players and we do extensive video work and extensive pre-scouts with them. We try and give the most information possible to our athletes before they get out there and compete.”

She also spoke to her and her coaching staff’s experience in this regard. “As a staff, we’ve had success at the U Sport or NCAA level, so we know what it takes to be a champion at whatever level we’re thrown into. Our experience as players has really helped us translate it to our players to be a champion and have that championship winning mindset.”

The prevailing feeling of the team’s return was that it was good to be back; there wasn’t necessarily a lot of expectations for the first season. “I think people doubted us a little bit,” Hilworth said. “[People were] just kind of happy that we’re back and to see AUS women’s hockey back at UNB was exciting for a lot of people, but I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d do this well this early.”

In contrast, Hilworth knew what to expect from her team. “I knew we’d be a top 4 team. I knew we could fit right in right away.”

The women’s hockey team finished the season with 13 wins, 11 losses and 4 ties; they further proved they could challenge the three top teams in the league by winning games against all of them. They will face UPEI in the quarterfinals, a team they only lost to once in their final regular season game.

UNB goaltender Hailey Martens positions herself to thwart a Mountains attack | Photo by James West for UNB Athletics

Hilworth commented on this tough loss going into the playoffs. “I think UPEI was the hungrier group,” she said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily bad for our group to experience that, because now they know that they are beatable against a team like UPEI. They just try and outwork you and they do a great job of doing that. It’s just a matter of coming back and rebounding against a team we know we can beat.”

As is typical of a young team, the large majority of its players are only in their first year of eligibility. Their two leading scorers, Tamina Kehler and Ashley Stratton, are both in their first year, and so is starting goalie Kendra Woodland, who boasts the highest save percentage in the league.

The future of women’s hockey at UNB is certainly bright with the young team. “You can’t help but be excited and see the potential with this team,” Hilworth said. “We’re just going to get better and better, and I think we’ll be knocking at that door anytime now. I think it’s that experience that we don’t necessarily have and once we start getting that experience under our belt it’s going to be exciting to see where these kids can go.”

Hilworth was overjoyed to learn she had gotten the job as head coach and is proud to be involved in bringing the team back. “It’s such a blessing to be able to bring back a program that means so much to a lot of people.”

It was important to her in terms of representation as well. “It’s nice to see women represented playing a sport that Canada loves. It’s just that visual identity of our team being back and doing so well too.”

The Brunswickan wishes the girls luck in the playoffs and the student body is so proud to see the return of women’s hockey. No matter their final standings, the women’s hockey team has had an overwhelmingly successful first season back. It shouldn’t have ever left UNB, and it certainly feels like it’s here to stay.