Program-builder Joe Cranston leads women’s hockey into 19th season
Joseph Cranston enters his 19th season as the head women’s hockey coach at UW-River Falls for the 2017-2018 season. Cranston has led the team to nine straight 20-win seasons and nine straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, including a runner-up finish in 2016. Cranston is the only head coach in program history and is looking to take his team back to the NCAA tournament after losing in the first-round last season to Gustavus after a 26-3 campaign.
The Student Voice sat down with Cranston to discuss his history at UWRF and what his impressions are of his new team after a 4-1-1 start.
Q: What first brought you to River Falls to coach?
A: I went to school here, graduated from here and was recruited to play hockey here. I got into coaching while I was still in college. It was an ad in the back of Let’s Play Hockey when they were announcing they were hiring for the new UWRF women’s hockey program. I saw that and applied.
Q: What coaching experience did you have before UWRF?
A: I had been a high school coach in Minnesota and Wisconsin for 10 years and coached youth hockey. I coached in Fergus Falls for high school junior varsity for one year, and then I coached the Somerset boys high school team for 10 years.
Q: What has it been like to be the only coach in school history to build this program the way you want?
A: It’s been nice. I didn’t have to follow someone else’s blueprint. Going into it, I didn’t have a vision but to get it started. It was a work in progress, and after my third or fourth year here (2003) we made it to the frozen four in Elmira. That’s what changed my perspective on where we need to be and to set high goals for the program.
Q: What were initial challenges you faced in making the program into a national contender?
A: Just to get somebody to come here. I think of the first 100 kids I called, I didn’t get any. It was really late in the game because I was a February hire. I didn’t have very many recruits on my first team – maybe two. We only won three games that first year and the next year we went to 19-7-1, so that was our biggest jump. It was 90 percent recruiting. I had a really good class after the first year. We still had challenges, like we didn’t have a locker room. But I had a vision and what I wanted to sell, and it must have worked.
Q: How important was playing two top-three teams in the nation to begin the 2017-2018 season?
A: It’s good to know we can play at that level. Today Norwich is ranked number one and we tied them and beat them in a shootout. It’s got to be good for the girls to know we can play with anybody. It’s just unfortunate that we had such a bad showing against Adrian. We didn’t even show up for that game, which is a good lesson too. It was the first time going out and doing that tournament. It’s a lot like the frozen four with the number two, three and four team there.
Q: What has helped the team put up huge scoring numbers this season?
A: We have a more balanced attack. Last year 90 percent of scoring was coming off the top line. This year we’re getting scoring from top to bottom on all four lines. That’s big for us to be able to do that.
Q: Has the defense started to tighten up after allowing five goals against Bethel?
A: We’ve had some defense hurt, and basically three forwards playing defense the last few games. Haley Neilsen was out and Ashley Effertz broke her leg and we’re young back there. Overall, it’s a team effort that they’re just starting to figure out how to play defensively. The best defense is a good offense. When we played UW-Stevens Point last weekend (a 6-1 Falcons win), we outshot them 21-0 in the first period. That’s pretty good defense because they never got across the red line much or had a shot on goal. Our strategy is to always wear teams down, and every year we do that, we score the majority of goals in the third period.
Q: What are the biggest changes from last year’s squad to this year’s younger team?
A: Our overall hockey IQ is much higher this year. It didn’t show against Steven’s Point because we didn’t play very intelligent and blew a lot of opportunities on odd-man rushes. I think this is a hockey team that, as we get more experience, we will be able to make more plays and score more goals than in recent years.
Q: Have the freshmen come along faster than you expected?
A: We pretty much knew what we were in for with this group. Callie Hoff is playing as good as any freshman who has ever played for me. Kora Torkelson has been putting the puck in the net and done some good things. Maddie Illikainen was hurt, but is getting up to speed and going to be a good player for us, which is pretty exciting.
Q: What will be the most essential thing you need to see to get wins against strong teams this season?
A: We want to keep the momentum. That was one of my biggest challenges last year. We couldn’t sustain it and role four lines and not lose momentum in a shift. We need to set the pace early, and if we lose momentum we need the next line to go out and get it back.