The Big Rivers Conference is no slouch when it comes to girls hockey. The Chi-Hi/Menomonie co-op knows that much.

The girls have hit the ice with a full head of steam this year and are aiming to improve on last season’s last-place finish in the Big Rivers.

“Work ethic and just their overall attitude,” coach Tony Menard said about what he saw out of the team in the first week of practice. “You can tell that this is a group of girls that are determined to get better.”

Chi-Hi/Menomonie will have some key pieces returning from last winter’s team. That includes their top five scorers from last year, led by honorable mention all-state selection Kaylee Frenette. Second team all-Big Rivers goalkeeper Haley Frank also returns in net.

Frenette accumulated 31 points last season by scoring 17 goals and assisting 14. The senior was the squad’s leading goalscorer by a wide margin a year ago.

In the net, Frank had a 0.88 save percentage during her freshman season last year.

“I think she wants to improve and challenge for that first team (all-conference) spot. She’s put a lot of hard work and effort into it this summer,” Menard said about Frank.

All in all, Chi-Hi/Menomonie has 11 letterwinners returning from last winter. Alexy Dresel tallied 18 points with seven goals and 11 assists, and Megan Klass also scored seven goals while assisting seven.

Menard said he’s looking for Frenette and Dresel to lead the charge as the team’s forwards this year.

“They’ve been getting a lot of playing time their first three seasons with us. So having those two up front, we hope that they set the pace for the team,” he said. “We’re still looking at them for that leadership and to go out and work hard.”

Leadership will be important for Chi-Hi/Menomonie this year, as the co-op has a group of 11 freshmen coming into the program.

“That’s really good for us to help build our program up. Especially having the freshmen and the group of seniors and juniors that we have, we hope that they can learn from the upperclassmen. Hopefully they figure out what type of culture we’re trying to build here with our program,” Menard said.

A large incoming class coupled with not much turnover from last year should help the team consolidate its expectations and style of play.

The bigger squad could lead to chances to utilize depth a little bit more than in previous years, which is something Menard hopes to be able to do this winter.

“We want to be deeper. We want to run three, four lines this year whereas the last couple years it’s only been two. That leaves a lot of opportunities for some of these younger girls to have a big impact on the game,” he said.

The Big Rivers figures to be strong again this season. Hudson was a win away from the state tournament last year, and Eau Claire/Altoona and St. Croix Valley are perennially tough teams.

Chi-Hi/Menomonie didn’t win a game in conference play last year, but they believe they’ve learned from that.

“We’ve been at the bottom of the conference the last three years, and you can tell that they’re not happy with that,” Menard said. “We want to compete, we want to be better in conference. I think we have the best conference in the state...We have to compete with them, and the girls want to do that.”

Apart from doing better in the Big Rivers, the team is aiming to win double digit games after going 5-18 last winter.

“This team hasn’t gotten to 10 wins in probably four, five years, and that’s a goal that we want to get to. That’s not an easy thing with our schedule that we play, but in order to get a better seed in our sectional it’s a mark that we have to hit,” Menard said.

Chi-Hi/Menomonie opens the season at Onalaska on Nov. 21.

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