Michigan-Dearborn at Concordia
October 4, 2019
It’s game day, and Maria Barlow is the head coach of the Concordia University Ann Arbor women’s hockey team.
Maria was also the head coach yesterday of course, although her official title was on the back burner for one of her others, Maria the Director of Hockey Operations, as she sorted out issues with her team’s ACHA-mandated coaching registrations and background checks. At other times, there’s also Maria the Equipment Manager, Maria the Graphic Designer, Maria the Social Media Manager, Maria the Spiritual Leader, Maria the Business Manager, and many others stemming from the myriad tasks that go into running a college hockey team.
This is a story that should start at the beginning though, because once upon a time, there was also Maria the Goalie: a standout at Michigan State, one of the ACHA’s most tradition-heavy programs, from 2011-15. Short of a national championship (she missed that one by a year), Maria accomplished just about everything else there is to accomplish. One of her signature moments came at the 2013 Central Collegiate Women’s Hockey Association playoffs, when she delivered a 1-0 title game shutout of powerful Robert Morris to deny the Eagles a second straight league title. She was also a member of the 2015 U.S National University Team, playing for Team USA at the World University Games in Granada, Spain.
All along the road, Maria had a favorite (if a bit cliché, she’ll admit) Bible verse on the side of her mask:
I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.Philippians 4:13
While there are few universally-accepted facts attached to Philippians (or The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians in its long-form title), scholarly consensus holds that it’s sort of a composite of several letters that Paul the Apostle wrote to Philippi, the site of Greece’s first Christian community, likely during the early 60s AD. The text indicates that Paul was in prison at the time of writing and quite possibly, it was his final time in custody, in Rome prior to his beheading on Emperor Nero’s orders between 64 and 67 AD.
What did Paul do while on death row? Wrote large chunks of human history’s best seller, which I’m now discussing nearly 2,000 years after his demise. Not a big deal.
Beyond that background, the context of the what he said is worth examining. Paul had been on a missionary trip to Philippi about ten years prior to his predicament and remained in touch, to the point where the Philippians sent him gifts in prison (which, unfortunately, did not include a nail file baked into a cake), and some of the epistle is essentially a thank you note for their generosity. However, Paul’s writings are also a series of final instructions to the church there. He urged them to reject worldly traditions and conflicts that interfere with proper worship, but more to the point, he was hopeful that his imprisonment would help spread Christianity, and he directed them to rejoice in the Lord regardless of circumstances.
His crime, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, was essentially “being a Christian in the Roman Empire.”
Job may be the standard biblical go-to for the perseverance of faith in the face of tribulation, but you could do a lot worse than Paul.
Next to the capital-Q Questions that Christians answer through the Bible, building a hockey program might seem trivial. But the nature of the faith needed in either case is similar: you have to trust in a larger plan, even when day-to-day circumstances don’t always offer much support for it.
As Maria the Goalie became Maria the Coach just a couple years before Concordia started a hockey program – God’s plan, she’ll tell you, given that she was one of the few in her family who didn’t attend the school – that’s what she was forced to do, because the Cardinals’ first season was, and there’s not really much way around this, ugly on the ice. Twelve games, six total goals scored, never fewer than five allowed in any one game, and a Death Valley of a low point coming from a 23-0 loss to a Davenport team that finished 8-19-0 (while playing without their only goalie, it should be noted). The last three contests on the schedule were canceled, more or less out of an effort to move forward with regrouping and retooling heading into 2019-20.
That team’s major bright spot was a top line of Mira Rolin, Brittney Badger, and Alex Ragon, a group that accounted for each of Concordia’s goals. Although the run of play typically made their job an impossible one, in general terms, they looked like a legitimate building block and possibly even a unit that would fit in somewhere on a championship contender.
Badger and Rolin left the team and the school during the offseason. So much for that.
What do you do? You started a program as determined by God’s plan, and poured everything you have into it. While you do have to make plenty of allowance for newness (even the most successful start-up programs in ACHA history generally weren’t at their best in year one) things really haven’t gone extraordinarily well by most of the visible measures. The answer isn’t to abandon everything you believe, it’s to double down on your process, your culture, and your goals. It’s to do what Paul did. It’s to have faith.
Sure enough, Maria the Recruiter got to work, and good things started to happen, including landing nine freshmen for 2019-20. One of the group’s headliners is Kassidy Scheben, a defenseman out of Kentucky with star potential. Scheben has more than a little in common with an old Maria the Goalie nemesis, Michigan’s Kalli Bates, who had a similar ability to carry the puck in from the line and create instant offense. Virginia’s Izzy Hootselle has already developed some chemistry with holdover Olivia Drys, as the pair combined on CUAA’s first goal of the new season and generated plenty of other chances over the first few games. Colleen Redding is a defenseman from an Upper Peninsula town named Iron Mountain, although she’s 5-7 and more of a puck mover than a choke slammer.
The class also includes a pair of goalies, Lizzy Knappenberger and Teagan Johnson, who join returning Britney Sibson in the Cardinal crease. With Maria the Goaltending Coach on the job, you have to assume at least one of them, if not more, will be fantastic.
Recruiting is as much art as science, but one common denominator is the work: thousands of calls, emails, and conversations that, if all goes well, produce a full roster eventually.
“I got an email from Coach Barlow about possibly coming to the school,” Drys explained of her recruiting process, then toured the school with [fellow sophomore] Kim Mills and loved the campus, loved the atmosphere, and the Christ-driven community, and just fell in love with it.”
“I actually grew up playing roller, and I came to Concordia on a music scholarship with no intentions of playing hockey,” forward Breanna Sheridan admitted. “Then I met these girls on the first weekend, and sort of got recruited in by them.”
Hey, plain old luck helps too. But however they arrive, the destination is the same, and also different from others.
“Measuring success with Team 2 is definitely different than how other teams may measure theirs,” Maria explained. “We are looking to build our current players to strive for excellence in academics, athletics, and personal growth, while maturing as Christians as well. We want to go our and be proud of the effort we give each and every game we play.”
It doesn’t take long to see some of those differences, or at least signs of them. Roughly half of the teams out there lose more than they win, but not many of those remain as upbeat and fun as the Cardinals. A lot of schools are affiliated with a denomination of Christianity (including a bunch of Concordias, and most who carry that very Lutheran name are related to the one in Michigan, although a couple aren’t), but not all of them pray before the national anthem and again at the end of the game. Many programs have rules about cell phone usage in the locker room or within a certain time of the game, but not all of them physically collect the phones in a repurposed box of goldfish crackers. Almost every team has injured players, but not all of them travel to away games and chart shots and faceoffs just to contribute whatever they can.
When you’re at a Cardinals game, the primary sound you can identify from the benches across the ice is Maria the Motivator yelling “PERFECT!” or “THERE YOU GO!” Even the program’s supporters seem to buy into that brand of positivity, with a group of college-aged guys in front of me yelling “NICE SHOT!” on an early drive by Adrianna Rugiero and “THAT WAS CLEAN!” on a delay of game penalty assessed to Concordia later on. I thought about what that one possibly could have meant for a while, then let it go because hey, it’s still a work in progress on all angles.
It’s a unique sort of place, and there’s plenty to show that a strong identity is starting to form behind the scenes.
“Coming to Concordia is a very different experience than any other school. We may not have a Big Ten name or a multi-million dollar rink on campus, but our small school has so much more to offer than that,” Maria said. “We’re a small, family-like campus but also located in the top college town in the U.S.”
“Another huge sell is the emphasis on being a Lutheran school, and we pride ourselves on being a good example of Christian leaders and hope to help our students and athletes grow through learning more about the faith.”
After recruiting and culture building, the next step, of course, is to improve as a hockey team and start to compete in and win games. There’s evidence of that too, at least a little bit. The Cardinals opened the year on the other side of the mitten at a showcase hosted by Grand Valley State, and while they dropped all three games, the team generally skated well with the hosts, along with Midland and Aquinas, early on before fading late in games. Dressing eight skaters and a goalie will tend to do that, while Maria the Patient has to wait out the early season for a couple injuries to heal and a couple recruits to turn 18 and become eligible.
Things are trending in the right direction though, so much so that I felt confident enough to circle CUAA’s home opener against Michigan-Dearborn as a possible first win for the program, then drive up to Michigan to see it, ready to tell the world about faith and redemption through the gospel of hockey.
The Cardinals lost 12-0, because growth isn’t always linear, and because you don’t always get the story you want to write. That can be God’s plan too.
It’s not worth launching off the high dive when discussing the game’s details. The starting lineup was botched (Hootselle’s hometown was given twice, her name was given zero times), I kept stepping in a bright green wad of gum, the rink was freezing, and Concordia was down 3-0 within the first five minutes of the game, then 8-0 at the end of the first period. It was not going superbly.
A funny thing happened on the way to 24-0 though.
As the Cardinals stepped down towards the bench from their balcony locker room after the intermission, one of those guys in front of me, in the group that thinks delay of game involves hitting, yelled “THIS IS OUR PERIOD!” To be clear, there was nothing whatsoever to indicate that it was about to be the Cardinals’ period. The culture remained strong.
Concondia didn’t actually win the second period in any tangible, measurable sense. But they didn’t lose it either, and that’s important at this stage of the team’s development. Johnson was spectacular in goal, Drys found Hootselle for a close call on the same play that produced a goal against Grand Valley last weekend and blocked a couple dangerous shots, and Sheridan, the player who wasn’t even supposed to be here, produced another great scoring chance. At the end of the thing, the score remained 8-0.
“It wasn’t our best game, but I think after the first period, we all came together and we stayed positive,” Drys said. “Attitude is everything.”
“The second period was amazing, I think all the girls did great,” Mills added.
You might not always get the season you wanted, but you can get great games within those seasons. And you might not always get the game you wanted, but you can get great moments within those games. This second period felt like a moment, and after a little more work and a few more bodies, it will be a moment that serves the team well and ultimately helps delivers a win the next time their backs are against the wall, whether facing Nero or the Wolverines.
Take it on faith.