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Badgers hockey: Reigning champs prepare for first home games with fans since February 2020

Wisconsin's sophomore stars lead the nation in scoring

The Wisconsin women’s hockey team steps onto the field at Camp Randall as fans cheer.
Members of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team smile as the crowd cheers for them Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The University of Wisconsin-Madison women’s hockey team is coming home Saturday to LaBahn Arena, where it’ll play in front of local fans for the first time since February 2020.

It’ll be an especially big day since the Badgers will drop their national championship banner. No. 1 Wisconsin will take on St. Cloud State on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

The Badgers are 4-0 heading into this weekend. So far this season, they’ve outscored opponents 27-1. By starting out on the road, the Badgers have been able to cultivate some chemistry, said head coach Mark Johnson.

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“I think travel sometimes early in the season is helpful because you create that team atmosphere that players can bond and get to know one another,” he said.

But the Badgers are excited to play in front of their local fans after they were kept away by the COVID-19 pandemic during last year’s championship run.

The Wisconsin women’s hockey team steps onto the field at Camp Randall as fans cheer.
The Wisconsin women’s hockey team is honored during the Badgers’ football season opener Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“I think until things are taken away from you, you don’t realize how important they are to you,” Johnson said. “I felt bad for the players on both sides of the benches, just because that’s part of why you play. You work hard, and you want people to come out and appreciate what you’re doing, support what you’re doing.”

Saturday marks the first time Makenna Webster and Casey O’Brien will play in front of home fans. The sophomores rank first and second in the nation respectively when it comes to scoring. Webster is averaging more than 3 points per game.

“They didn’t have what you’d call a normal freshman year last year,” Johnson said. “They played 21 games (due to COVID-19 schedule changes) and won a national championship, uncharacteristic of what normal freshman go through.”

The Wisconsin Badgers celebrate their sixth national title in women’s hockey on March 20, 2021. Photo courtesy of UW Athletics

It’s common for players to improve between their freshman and sophomore years, he said. But for Webster and O’Brien, changes off the ice may also be playing a role. More classes are back to normal this year, and the team was able to attend a football game at Camp Randall Stadium earlier this season. The Badgers are also back to a standard 34-game regular-season schedule.

Wisconsin also returned some experienced stars this year, including Daryl Watts, who scored the overtime goal to secure last season’s national title, Sophie Shirley and goalie Kennedy Blair.

The team will continue to work on consistency from period to period and game to game as it gets into its conference schedule, Johnson said. The Badgers will play their first ranked opponent next week when they head to the University of Minnesota Duluth. Later this month, Wisconsin will host a pair of games against No. 3 Ohio State.