BEMIDJI, Minn. - Hard work. Toughness. Consistency. These are just a few of the things that Steve Sertich’s program has become known for throughout his six seasons as head Bemidji State University coach. If you want evidence of this visit the training room after a BSU women’s hockey game. Often one will see two defensemen of diminutive stature and blazing red hair looking for ice packs and comparing their bruises from the night’s action. These two fierce defenders are sisters Marlee and Erika Wheelhouse, a pair of Beaver players who have become notorious shot blockers during their careers. The tandem has spent the last three years helping anchor BSU’s blue line.
“We had a lot of shots in high school where we had to get in front of pucks,” Marlee said. “Coming into college, that is how we grew up and that is what we knew. It became a habit for BSU to block shots. We are rarely the most skilled team on the ice. We don’t rely on talent alone. We rely on hard work. The more pucks we get in front of the better. Erika and I have taken that role on. With our small stature it is easier to get in front of the puck than it is to move out a tall Hilary Knight (Wisconsin).”
When asked which one has suffered the biggest bruise from the plethora of hard shots they face in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association action, Erika won the battle but Marlee still has the marks to show how she has used her body to prevent pucks from getting to BSU goaltenders Zuzana Tomcikova and Alana McElhinney.
“The worst shot that I remember is definitely a Hilary Knight shot that I took off my finger,” Marlee said. “It wasn’t a big bruise but it definitely left a mark. I am still kind of recovering from it. There are definitely some hard shots in the WCHA and anything we can do to help out our team is what we do. We sacrifice our bodies for the betterment of the team.”
“I definitely have had the biggest bruise,” said Erika. “This year against Minnesota I took a shot to the back. It was a bad blocked shot on my part but at least I got the puck.”
The two sisters have relied a lot on each other over the last three seasons in the green and white. It hasn’t even always been older sister Marlee helping younger sister Erika. One example of this is early on in Marlee’s transition to defense. A forward throughout her youth, the coaches asked the elder Wheelhouse to make the transition to defense as a freshman. It was her younger sister that provided her with several pointers early on.
“When Erika got here she obviously knew what she was doing so that helped having her playing with me in the defensive zone,” Marlee said. “I have improved over my four seasons playing defense. I feel very comfortable on the blue line and I don’t feel so comfortable playing forward any more. It is definitely a big change but I have been blessed to play all four years and play in every game.”
The pair of sisters gets the chance this weekend to play in their hometown of Crookston in front of the hoards of supporters, family and friends who watched them growing up. The Beavers face University of North Dakota Nov. 25 in the first game of a two-game series at the brand new Crookston Sports Center.
“It is a very big deal for the two of us,” Marlee said. “When we played up in Roseau last year we talked to the coaches and told them ‘Hey, let’s play in Crookston’. And they went for it. It will be fun getting in front of the home crowd. It will be a great way to end my senior year to play for the fans I grew up in front of and that got to watch me play when I was younger.”
Marlee’s time at BSU will soon end and for the first time in three seasons Erika will be without the older sister that has been my her side for most of her life.
“As far as I know she doesn’t have any plans for next year so I still plan to see her a lot,” Erika said. “Our family is pretty close so I am sure she will come to quite a few of the games. It will definitely be different not having her living right across the alley from me.”
For now the Wheelhouse sisters will focus on the 20 games they have left as teammates as they focus on some unfinished business that the team has set their sights on.
“Our goal is to be a top four team in the WCHA,” Marlee said. “We have never finished in the top four before so that would a great step for this program. This is definitely the year that our senior class hopes to further our careers and make our final mark on the Bemidji State program.”
It is unknown how this season will end for the Beavers but one thing is for sure. It will be done with a workman-like attitude and the toughness shown throughout the BSU women’s hockey program. If you question this just ask Marlee and Erika and take a look at their bruises. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
-This story appeared in ths weekend's game program and thus was written before the games