It’s a little ironic that Finlandia – one of the oldest members of the NCHA Women’s Conference – bears many of the same traits as the league’s recent expansion teams.

Trine and Aurora are programs that are building; Finlandia is rebuilding.  Which situation would a new coach rather have?

Matt Marchel is leading with the rebuild parameters, having taken over the head coaching position at Finlandia in 2015 on short notice and without his own recruiting class.  After a year as interim coach and one as a full-timer, he has had two seasons to make some positive changes. 

And he has done just that.

After winning one game the past two seasons, the Lions have two wins and a tie already in 2017-18.  They have five conference points, only two of which have come off an expansion team.  The last time Finlandia had five conference points was a decade ago.

“It’s awesome to see,” says Marchel, about finally realizing some results after a couple years of hard work.  “The locker room, even through some losing seasons, has still been a positive place … We compare ourselves to us.  Us yesterday, us last week.  We can’t compare ourselves with Adrian and Lake Forest right now.  We get that.  We just try to keep taking steps forward and keep things positive.”

Changing culture in any program that hasn’t seen success for an extended period of time is one of the most difficult tasks.  Many try; few succeed.  Marchel has embraced it and set realistic goals for the program.  He started with the team.  As in, physically, THE TEAM.  In his year as interim coach, Marchel had many games with only 11 players on the bench, so growing that number became a priority.  But aside from increasing the number pf players dressing, the character and type of person wearing the game sweater was equally important.

“If you’re going to build something like this, build it up through good people,” says Marchel, who was an assistant with the Finlandia men’s program before taking over the women’s team.  “That’s what I’m going for.  They have to want to work hard and get better every day.  It’s so hard for a freshman to come in and have success in this league, unless you really stand out at the previous level … Every player that comes in is going to be a project, so that’s kind of why I’m dedicated to bringing in good people that will work hard and are here for the right reasons.”

Now equipped with some good people, Marchel is adopting game-plans that fit the team’s skill set - in order to jump into the win column a little more frequently and be competitive in most games.  And it has worked.
“We’ve developed some new systems to play to our strengths,” he says.  “We have a lot of speed on the wings, so we try to use that … Speed doesn’t help you unless you use it properly; we’re still getting used to that.  We’ve made offensive and defensive changes and the girls have bought into it.  They know how we need to play to be successful against some of these teams in the conference – some big-time, established programs that have been good for a long time.”

Finlandia could care less if an opponent out-shoots them 60-12.  It’s part of the plan, given the current roster.  Generating scoring chances in transition out of their defensive zone a few times a game works just fine, for now.  It has led to points in the standings and individual points for the team’s offensively-skilled players.

One of those players, Sierra Meiners, is generating more than a point per game in the system.  She’s one of just two players who have posted double-digit points in a single season since 2009-10.

“She’s a senior, nursing major, so she has a lot on her plate,” says Marchel of his leading scorer, who earned the NCHA Women’s Offensive Player of the Week award back in December.  “Her hard work, it’s has paid off.  Her goal production has increased throughout her career … She has a chance to break the scoring record at Finlandia.”

Meiners is in the clinical stage of her nursing major, causing her to miss practice from time to time.  But you would never know it watching her play – and score.

“She’s super talented,” says Marchel of the stellar senior.  “She can shoot the puck really hard, and she shoots it deceptively.  She’s smart with the puck moving up ice and she is athletic … some deceptive speed.  It takes her a little bit to get going, but when she gets going, there aren’t a lot of girls that can stop her.”

With heavy shot totals coming from opponents, goalie Annah Smiddy has needed to be sharp every game for the Lions – and she has been just that.  She ranks second in the conference in total saves yet holds a save percentage over 90 percent.

“She was a little inconsistent last year, but a model of consistency this year,” says Marchel of the sophomore netminder.  “She stole a game with her 52-save shutout at Trine.  She gives us a chance to win every night … She has the mind for it, doesn’t get rattled.  She sees 60 shots in a game one night, then comes right back does it again the next night.  We don’t have to manage her very much because she has a great head on her shoulders.”

Meiners and Smiddy are just a couple of the Lions doing great things this season.  The collective effort of the entire locker room is what has the vibe changing in the U.P. 

“Knowing that we can play with a lot of the teams in this conference, that’s huge,” says Marchel.  “We say confidence brings success and success brings confidence.  It’s a nice revolving door.  Once you start feeling it, that you can do this, everything becomes a little bit easier.”

It's taken a long time, but things are starting to get easier.  Just look at the results and the points column.