MEQUON, Wis. - Through the first half of the 2011-12 season, the Concordia University Wisconsin men's hockey team has played a schedule loaded with high-caliber competition.
Based on the USCHO.com Division-III rankings, the Falcons have already taken the ice against 11th-ranked MSOE, seventh-ranked Adrian College, and defending national champion and sixth-ranked St. Norbert College.
But with a young Falcons team that features 12 freshman and eight sophomores, head coach Tony Hrkac knows that his players will only benefit from the rigorous schedule they've had to endure.
"Early on, it was a learning experience for the guys," Hrkac said. "I think it's now really starting to pay off; we're playing a lot better as a team and we know that we can't just be individuals out there. We need to play as a team and we need everybody to play well each game."
CUW's record (1-10-2, 1-6-1 MCHA at the halfway point of the season) is somewhat misleading, due to the fact that the Falcons have matched up well with many of the opponents they've played against, especially in their last several games.
In both games of a weekend series with #7 Adrian on December 2-3, for example, the Falcons were tied with the Bulldogs heading into the third period before surrendering several late goals.
During their most recent game, against Gustavus Adolphus College on December 9, CUW fell behind early but was arguably the better team on the ice for stretches of the final two periods.
Hrkac, in his 5th season at CUW, likes the way his team is competing, and just hopes some of results start to turn in the Falcons' favor as the season goes on.
"As we get more confidence in ourselves and the guys get more used to playing together in the second half (of the season), hopefully we can put these same types of games together while coming out with wins instead of those tight losses," Hrkac said.
Offensively, the Falcons have been led by sophomore forward Russell Johnson (Monticello, Minn.), who has emerged as a major threat up front, scoring nine goals in 13 games.
Hrkac said he's also been pleased with the play of freshmen Morgan Sanchez (Corona, Calif.), Dustin Jonasson (West Fargo, N.D.), and Tanner Tryggestad (Amery, Wis.), as well as sophomore captain Shay Klitzke (Annandale, Minn.).
In the defensive zone, the Falcon head coach says his players are doing a nice job of protecting the net while preventing opponents from receiving the puck in dangerous areas.
"We're not giving up a lot of quality shots from the slot, which is something we used to allow a lot of in the past," Hrkac said. "We're getting a lot of shots on us, but we're keeping them to the outside. Those are shots our goaltender should stop."
Speaking of goaltending, freshman goalie Josh Lehr (Appleton, Wis.) has earned the top spot on the Falcons' depth chart, posting a .899 save percentage and displaying solid performances throughout the first half of the season.
"The goaltenders have to be our best players and Josh has really taken the reins and helped us out on the back end," Hrkac said. "He's kept us in games at times, and has kept us in position to pull out wins in some of those games."
The Falcons don't play again until January 13, when they open a two-game weekend series against Finlandia University at the Ozaukee Ice Center.
Conditioning will be a focal point during the month-long break away from game action, as Hrkac says his players must stay in shape if they want to be ready for the second-half stretch.
"We'll ramp up the practices again in the first week of January when guys come back from winter break," Hrkac said. "We'll have a week and a half of practice time where there will be a lot of conditioning, and then we'll really get into our special teams and defensive zone play again."