The only thing more powerful than the sound of the music pumping in the locker room were the smiles on the faces of the Lady Vikings as they arrived at Dann Memorial Rink.
It was opening day of hockey and the Nichols girls’ Prep A team was chomping at the bit to return to the ice.
“We did get a huge boom box, so that’s a start,” junior Ciara Barone said with a laugh, referring to the music in the locker room.
“We’re very excited to start. We’ve got a lot of young kids, a new coach. That’s very exciting-she’s got a great reputation. Obviously we’re going to miss Scott (Welch) a lot. He did amazing things for the program over the years. Shelley is amazing and we can’t wait to get started with her.”
Change, as always, is the nature of the beast in high school athletics as the Vikings lost key players Rachel dePerio, Abby Welch, Marissa Higgins, Ava Simoncelli and Michele Robillard to graduation.
But for the Nichols girls, 2016-17 is also about change behind the bench as head coach Scott Welch stepped down on Oct.30 due to travel demands at his new job. Replacing Welch will be former US Olympian, Shelley Looney.
“When I first moved first moved here (to WNY) three years ago Nichols was always in the limelight with the history of hockey, both on the boys’ and girls’ side,” Looney said.
Looney, a former two-time Olympian who helped Team USA win Gold in Nagano in 1998, is the current Hockey Director for the Buffalo Bisons Hockey Association and spent last season as the co-head coach of the Buffalo Beauts of the National Womens Hockey League.
She also competed in eight IIHF World Women’s Championships, winning seven straight silver medals before going out with the gold at the 2005 tournament.
“Coach Looney brings an array of hockey sense and a huge resume to the team and I think she can bring us to the next level,” said junior goalie Jada Brenon.
“Coach Welch has worked so diligently and has been so vital to bringing us to where we are today Nationally ranked fourth in the country last year. Shelley fits the vision of where this program wants to go.”
Similar to Welch in terms of a coaching philosophy that is rooted in demanding the best from yourself, Looney hopes to use her experience, knowledge and ability to reach the girls as a way of putting her stamp on the program.
“They’ve had a strong leader in the past (in Welch) and I hope to continue that,” said Looney.
“I’m not Scott, I’m Shelley. But at the same time we know the game and how girls can be pushed and encouraged all together and I hope to bring some of what I’ve learned in the past to them.”
Winning 162 games at Nichols, Welch, took over as head coach at the start of the 2009-10 season. He guided the team to four North American Prep Hockey Association playoff titles and three playoff championships in the Conference of Independent Schools Athletic Association.
Welch saw 71 of his players advance to play at the collegiate level-with 40 of them going DI. He also saw all four of his daughters-Kelsey, Haley, Maddie and Abby-go through the program.
While Scott Welch had the good fortune to coach three of his daughters throughout their careers at Nichols, he always prided himself on the mantra that team was a family and he viewed every girl as a daughter.
“Scott was like a second dad to me. We called him my hockey dad and called Abby and Maddie my hockey sisters. So I’m definitely going to miss that a lot,” said Barone. “Scott did amazing things for me as far as college goes. He got me where I am (verbally committed) with Providence.”
While saying goodbye to coach Welch was difficult, every girl knows they are very lucky to have Looney step in and they are certain that their new coach will keep the tradition of excellence in Nichols girls hockey going forward.
As they hit the ice, Brenon and Barone, co-team MVP’s last season, know its on their shoulders to replace the leaders who have graduated. But there is a strong core beside them in senior/F Allison Attea, junior/D Taylor Pietrowski, sophomore/F Katy Knoll.
“The seniors last year are going to be very hard to replace,” said Barone. “They were great kids on and off the ice. I looked up to them all the years I played with them. So very sad we’re not playing with them. Jada, Allison, Taylor, Katy and I; we’ve all experienced rough patches and we learned a lot from the seniors last year and leadership previously and I think we know how to handle it.”
Falling in the championship round of both leagues last season the Vikings will look to use the sting of those losses as motivation to get back and finish the job.
“We definitely have some unfinished business from last year,” Brenon said. “But this program has a tradition of excellence and we have to live up to that. I think with hard work we can get back to where we were last season with the success that we had. Ultimately, (it’s) not the ending that we wanted but we did have success during the season. We just want to pick up where we left off.”
Sophomore forwards Abigail Gicewicz and Audrey Lazar will be key on offense, while sophomore newcomer LeeAnn Wright, who played for the merged Kenmore/Grand Island WNY Federation team last season, brings skill and grit to the blue line.
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