At age 23, Sarah Erickson is barely out of college. But what she lacks in years, she makes up for in experience and strong work ethic.
Erickson became the head women’s hockey coach at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., this summer and is very close in age to players on her roster.
The former Gophers women’s hockey player graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2012 after a successful four-year career that ended with a national title.
This summer, Erickson injured her knee, which dashed her hopes at the winter Olympics in Russia. She bounced back, though, and got the job at Concordia just days after the disappointing news.
“Sarah’s a big believer in things [happening] for a reason,” said her fiancÃ©, Tom Upton. “I think that sured up everything in her mind that things do happen for a reason. From something bad came this phenomenal opportunity for her to get her coaching career started.”
Gophers head coach Brad Frost said Erickson’s leadership “progressed significantly” in her time at Minnesota.
“When she came in as a freshman, she was a little more immature,” he said. “By her junior year, she ended up getting it and understanding what a leader was all about.”
Erickson, a Roseau, Minn., native, was an assistant captain her junior year and co-captained the 2011-12 team to an NCAA championship.
Senior forward Bethany Brausen, who was captain last year and again this season, said Erickson was “as good a leader as you’re going to find.”
Brausen said there were moments during her sophomore year — Erickson’s senior year — that were hard on Brausen because she didn’t get a lot of ice time.
But Erickson took her under her wing and helped her through it.
“There [are] not a lot of people in my life that I really consider huge role models or heroes,” Brausen said. “In my time here, she quickly became one of my heroes.”
Frost said he doesn’t remember if he talked to Erickson about becoming a coach but said it was evident she’d make a good one.
“She’s got a great personality, and kids will be drawn to her and want to play for her,” Frost said.
Erickson had her sights set on the Olympics after a successful college career.
Erickson joined Upton — then an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point after her graduation. She spent that time training for the national team and also served as an assistant coach for the women’s team at Stevens
“I think it’s really important that when the game gives so much to you, you’ve got to give back to it,” Erickson said.
Her schedule that year was very demanding. Upton said she would wake up and head to the gym to work out, then go to the rink and do on-ice training. After training, she’d head home, let the dog out and return to the rink to coach.
Erickson was named to the U.S. national team roster for the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships in April 2013. She said the season she spent coaching made her a better player and coach.
“It was hectic in a good way,” Erickson said. “I think it gave me a really good chance to relate to my players as well as relating to the coaching staff.”
Triumphing over tragedy
Olympic tryouts this summer didn’t go as planned for Erickson.
“I blew out my knee the first day on ice, and I was pretty devastated,” she said. “You don’t want that to happen at the Olympic tryouts.”
When USA Hockey announced the U.S. women’s national team’s roster, Erickson’s name wasn’t called.
“The injury was disappointing, and it kind of came out of nowhere for everybody,” Upton said.
But the timing worked out.
“I’m sitting on the injury table getting looked at, and I listen to this voicemail, and it says, ‘Alright, we’d love for you to apply for the job,’” Erickson said.
At that point, she thought she still might have a shot at the roster. But when that didn’t work out, she returned the call.
Concordia athletics director Rich Glas got Erickson’s contact info from an assistant coach on the basketball team, who also had Roseau roots.
Glas said others were high on Erickson’s playing skills and thought she would make a great coach.
“After we had an opportunity to sit down and talk to her with our committee, we felt the same way,” he said.
Glas said Erickson’s experiences with the Gophers and with the national team put her “ahead of the curve,” but her interview put her over the top.
“You want to win games — that’s certainly the case — but she was also in tune with wanting to develop young women,” he said.
The Cobbers’ roster features 11 freshmen and three new coaches and is very much in a building mode. Erickson, who has exhibited success at different levels, is tasked with rebuilding the program.
Sophomore forward Anna Westmark said Erickson told the team that because she still wishes she was playing, seeing players give anything less than 100 percent hurts her.
Andrea Nichols, another Gophers women’s hockey alumnus, is an assistant coach on Erickson’s staff. She said Erickson does a great job teaching the game and sharing her experiences.
“I’ve told these girls, for whatever reason, I’ve got an eye for championship teams, and that’s because I know what it takes,” Erickson said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve been there first-hand.”
When the Gophers had their title run during her senior season, she said, they weren’t necessarily the best team, but they were the closest.
That’s the culture she’s trying to bring to Concordia.
“No matter what happens, no matter what we go through, we’re a family and we support each other,” Erickson said.
Erickson cited Frost, Gophers assistant coach Joel Johnson and former Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson as role models and said she tries to mimic the way they coached.
Frost and Johnson instilled a family-first atmosphere at Minnesota, she said, and she’s trying to do the same at Concordia.
That hockey-family balance is one that Erickson is trying to strike herself.
Upton, her fiancÃ©, is an assistant coach with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. Erickson said the balancing act has been the hardest thing she’s ever done.
Upton said the two don’t see each other as much as they would like, but they make the most of the opportunities they have.
While the distance is hard for the couple now, Erickson said they don’t want to wonder “what if” down the road.
“If we’re not chasing our dreams now, then what are we going to look back on in 10 years and say, ‘Man, I wish I would have’?” Erickson said. “It’s very hectic, and it’s hard, but it’s all so worth it.”