Crookston’s Wheelhouse sisters bring offense to Bemidji State defense, return home Friday to face No. 6 North Dakota

Bemidji State defensemen Marlee Wheelhouse, left, and Erika Wheelhouse, right, are among the offensive leaders on the Beavers. BSU faces North Dakota this week. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

The no-look pass is a specialty Marlee and Erika Wheelhouse bring to the Bemidji State women’s hockey team.

Call it the sister sense.

“We have more of a special connection than we do with other teammates,” said Erika, a junior. “We know where each other is going to be all the time and it helps in games when you can make the blind pass.”

The Wheelhouse sisters return to their hometown of Crookston on Friday to face No.6 North Dakota at Crookston Sports Center. Saturday’s game is at the Sanford Center and both game times are 7 p.m.

“It’s going to be a great experience getting back in front of our home crowd that supported us in high school,” said Marlee, a senior and team captain. “We’re looking forward to having a lot of people coming out to support us. We’re also looking forward to people seeing us in college hockey and how we’ve developed over the years.”

The series is a rematch between last year’s heated first-round WCHA playoff series won by North Dakota in the third game of the series.

“We have a sour taste in our mouths after losing in a three-game series,” Erika said. “It’s always an aggressive game with North Dakota. They play really tough, we expect to give them nothing but 100 percent. We’re going to keep grinding it out and see how it goes.”

The sisters from Crookston have been playing hockey together for 15 years and bring an offensive approach to the BSU defense. The two remember their first time skating together in Crookston at ages four and five when they went to the hockey rink with their brother, Nick, and father, Scott.

“Our brother wanted to try hockey out so when he went to the rink, our dad brought us along and we just got a love for the game,” Marlee said. “I think we just followed in his footsteps.”

Nick played high school hockey for Crookston as did Marlee and Erika.

Marlee holds all the scoring records for Crookston and came to Bemidji State in 2008. Erika came to BSU in 2009 and said there was never a plan to play together beyond high school.

“It just happened to work out that way,” Erika said. “We both saw a lot of benefits in Bemidji and so that’s where we both ended up.”

The Wheelhouse sisters have been key players in part of Bemidji State’s emergence as a competitive team in the WCHA, which has won all 11 Division I national championships in the history of the women’s college game.

When Marlee came to Bemidji State as a freshman, the Beavers were coming off a five-win season and head coach Steve Sertich was working to build the program. A forward since age 13, Marlee converted to defense when she arrived at BSU and added depth to the blue line.

The Beavers won six games during Marlee’s freshman year and won 12 games during Erika’s freshman season, a year when BSU set the program record for fewest goals allowed in a season (98) with the help of goalie Zuzana Tomcikova.

Erika was named the Beaver Pride Female Newcomer of the Year in 2009-10 as the top freshman female athlete at BSU. She played in all 38 games and led all freshmen in scoring with 14 points.

BSU also defeated St. Cloud State that spring for the first WCHA playoff series victory in program history.

The Beavers improved again last season and won 14 games. Those wins included victories against top 10 ranked teams in Mercyhurst, Minnesota-Duluth and the first home win against Minnesota.

The BSU defense led by Tomcikova, Montana Vichorek and the Wheelhouse sisters broke the previous season’s record and allowed 88 goals.

BSU is off to a 9-4-2 (5-4-1-0 WCHA) start this year and are no longer considered pushovers in the league. BSU has appeared in the national poll for most of the season and reached No. 10 last month for the first top 10 appearance in program history.

BSU achieved that ranking after defeating then No. 2 Minnesota at home. Last week BSU defeated No. 6 Duluth 4-3 on the road for the second win in program history against the Bulldogs.

The Wheelhouse sisters see significant time on the power play and are among Bemidji State’s scoring leaders this season. Each have 15 points heading into the series against North Dakota.

Marlee has five goals and 10 assists. Erika has four goals and 11 assists.

The Beavers are winning games despite the loss of last year’s top scorers in Erin Cody, Annie Bauerfeld and Erin Johnson to graduation. When asked about their experience so far this year, the two sisters looked at each other and smiled.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Erika said. “We’ve been gradually increasing our performances each year as far as a team aspect and we couldn’t ask for anything more. With graduating the top three from last year, we’ve been very impressed with how we’ve bounced back this year and we’re off to a great start.”

During games when Marlee and Erika find ways to make some of those improbable no-look passes, the fans in the stands may not recognize the special plays as much as their teammates on the bench.

“They kind of find it amazing we have that connection,” Marlee said. “We see each other out there a lot more than our teammates. It works out for the betterment of our team that we know where each other is going to be, can make those blind passes and know that the other one is going to be there for us.”

Follow Eric Stromgren on Twitter at @estromgren and on Facebook.

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