Caitlin Fyten had a feeling her University of Manitoba Bisons were poised to make a splash in 2017-18.
But nothing quite prepared her for a lofty No. 1 national ranking in women's hockey and top spot in Canada West at mid-season, which is where the Bisons are currently perched.
"I knew, based on the players we had returning this year, that we definitely had a shot this year," said the fifth-year blue-liner Tuesday. "I don't know if at the beginning of the year I would've believed it as much as I do now. But I knew there was definitely something there."
The Bisons rose to as high as No. 3 in the rankings last season but were eliminated from national title contention when they were ousted in the Canada West semifinals.
Prior to the Christmas break, a No. 1 ranking was a first in program history and the Bisons are determined to stay there.
Rachel Dyck, who shares the squad's goaltending duties with Lauren Taraschuk, likes the look of the team as it's currently constructed.
"We've always been mid pack (in the rankings) I think," said Dyck, another fifth-year player. "But it's pretty cool to be ranked No. 1 and to be consistent with it. We're finding ways to win. Saturday was tough, we couldn't pull that one off (in overtime) but when we're down, we don't panic or anything. We stick to the game plan and find ways to win."
The Bisons, first in Canada West with an 11-4-2-1 record after a win and a overtime loss in Edmonton against the No. 2 Alberta Pandas last weekend, host the Saskatchewan Huskies in a pair of crucial conference games on Friday and Saturday. The third-place Huskies are four points behind Manitoba.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the experience on the team," said Fyten. "I think we have 15 players in their fourth or fifth years and of those players, we've made three runs at (nationals), so just the fact we've been there and we know what it takes, we know how hard we have to work is very helpful for us."
Manitoba, the highest scoring team in the conference, is led by star forward Jordyn Zacharias. Zacharias leads Canada West with 10 goals and is second in the scoring race with 15 points in 18 games.
Dyck believes experience combined with a sprinkling of newcomers, including first-year defenders Lauren Warkentin and Brielle Dacquay-Neveux, make for an excellent mix.
"We have a really strong D corps and our defensive game game has been really, really good which has helped us lock down teams and win those close games," said Dyck.
The U of M men's and women's hockey programs will hold a joint scholarship fundraiser event on Jan. 31 with special guest Kelly McCrimmon in attendance.
McCrimmon, currently the assistant GM of the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights and also the owner of the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings, will be on hand to witness the Bisons Hockey Hall of Fame induction of former Manitoba forward Bob Lowes and ex-women's team blue-liner Caitlin McDonald.
The special induction ceremony, which will include a cocktail reception, will be held at the Assiniboine Park's Journey to Churchill Exhibit. Single tickets for the event are $175, with a tax receipt for the donation portion of the ticket. All scholarship donations will be matched by the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative.
Lowes, currently serving as the assistant director of player personnel for the Golden Knights, played for the Bisons in the mid- to late-1980s while serving as team captain during the 1986-87 season. He went on to an stellar coaching career in the WHL with the Wheat Kings and Regina Pats before moving to the NHL as a scout.
McDonald was a four-time all-conference selection and a two-time all-Canadian in her five seasons with the Bisons. McDonald also earned a gold medal while playing for Canada at the 2013 World University Games and was a three-time U Sports academic all-Canadian.
She was also the first University of Manitoba female player to be named to a national team when she was chosen to play for Canada at the under-18 worlds in 2010.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.