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When you play in arguably the toughest conference in the state, progress can’t always be judged on wins and losses.

The Chi-Hi/Menomonie girls hockey team returns a host of players who saw time on the ice last and although the team is searching for its first conference win since the 2014-15 season, they are ready to be more competitive against Big Rivers Conference foes this season under fifth-year head coach Tony Menard.

“(I’m) seeing a lot of good effort out of all of them and I think the biggest thing is they’re coming in with a good attitude right away at the beginning of the season,” Menard said. “With that hopefully we are able to improve each day and once we get to our games we’ll be able to figure out where we need to adjust and make some improvements but until then we’re just going to keep working hard and try to become a little more talented and a little bit more skilled.”

The team returns 16 letterwinners from a season ago in which team went 6-16-2. The limited turnover on the roster should help the team take a step forward as many young players earned valuable playing time last year.

“Having that many girls get ice time and see game action last year it’s really going to help us,” Menard said. “They know what we expect from them in games. Last year we had a pretty big freshman group that saw a lot of playing time. We had some growing pains there a little bit but I thought we were playing really good hockey at the end of the season.”

While a good portion of the roster returns this season, the team will need to replace three important pieces that are no longer with the team in Kaylee Frenette, Alexy Dresel and Makayla Hendrickson. All three played significant minutes on last year’s team and Frenette and Dresel were two of the three top point scorers a season ago. Frenette lead the team with 43 points and totaled the third most points (119) in program history over her career.

Sophomore Sidney Polzin is the team’s highest returning goal scorer after notching 12 goals and 29 points last year as a freshman. She earned Big Rivers Conference honorable mention for her play last season.

Menard thinks Polzin is someone who can pick up scoring slack with the departures of Frenette and Dresel. Chloe Beaudette — who was third on the team with seven goals last season — Claire Walter and Kendall Rudiger will also see action at forward this season and could help the offense take pressure off the defense, something Menard believes the team needs to compete with the teams in conference.

Haley Frank is back in goal for Chi-Hi/Menomonie this season after earning a place on the all-conference second team for the second year in a row. Frank has a career .886 save percentage.

Menard feels goaltender is a strength of the team and he also likes the depth at that position with sophomore Caroline O’Dell backing Frank up. O’Dell saved over 90 percent of shots in her freshman year.

“We just really like both our goaltenders and have confidence if either of them is in the game that we’re going to be alright,” Menard said.

With a conference boasting state champion Eau Claire Area, along with Hudson and St. Croix Valley — who were each ranked in the top 10 of the final coaches poll last season — Chi-Hi/Menomonie understands the challenges the conference presents. Menard thinks with a cast of returning players and some talented goalies the team can take an important step forward this season and cause problems for the strong area teams.

“I’m just excited with the group of girls we got and I think they’re excited moving forward,” Menard said. “I think we have a good team chemistry going this year and I think that’s going to help us more than anything compared to years past... Moving forward I think they’re all going to feed off of each other and play well.”

Chi-Hi/Menomonie begins the season on Nov. 20 when they host Onalaska at Chippewa Area Ice Arena.

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Chippewa Herald sports reporter

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