Many athletes talk about taking “the next step” to get better. Brianna Decker has taken the notion to its literal extreme.
For the past two summers she and many of her Wisconsin hockey teammates have stayed together for off-season workouts to improve their conditioning and on-ice skills.
She said it was something she had to do.
“I knew I needed to stay and dedicate myself to become the player I wanted to be,” she said.
So, they ran up and down thousands of steps at Camp Randall Stadium, pushing themselves to exhaustion to build stamina, while also working with a strength coach on sprinting and weights and conditioning drills.
Even after very successful freshman and sophomore seasons, Decker — now a junior — also spent her summers fine-tuning her on-ice skills, breaking down her stride, her shot and the fundamentals she says some players overlook.
“I think if you just focus on those, you can improve your skills by only a couple of percent, but that can be a difference maker,” she said.
The result of all that work might often be subtle — more energy late in a game, a sharper shot here, a better pass there — but there also are measurable improvements.
This year, the defending national champion Badgers are 26-2-2 and ranked No. 1 in the NCAA, and Decker is No. 2 in the nation in scoring, with 64 points (29 goals, 35 assists). She also set a Wisconsin record with a consecutive-points streak of 32 games, dating to last season.
Since coming to Wisconsin, Decker has watched the standout older players in the program — such as Meghan Duggan (last season’s Patty Kazmaier Award winner) and Hilary Knight — and learned from them. And last year as a member of the U.S. National Team that won a gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Women’s Championship in Switzerland, she teamed with players who made her feel humble.
“You kind of get set in your place,” she said of playing with the best of the best.
For Decker, those players and those experiences have been inspiring.
“It’s just so easy to watch them and pick up things they do so well,” she said.
As a freshman, Decker — a 5-foot-4 center from Dousman, Wis. — had 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in 27 games. As a sophomore, when she was a second-team All-America selection, she had 80 points (34-46) in 41 games.
This year she’s on pace to beat last season’s point total.
Along with her off-season work and experience, Decker credits her growth on the ice to her line mates, Brooke Ammerman and Carolyne Prevost, with whom she also played most of last season.
“I think that our chemistry on the ice has been really good and we’ve been producing well. Playing with players like them makes my job easier because they can give me the puck but I can feed them as well,” she said. “I think that’s where a lot of my success comes from.”
Offensively, Decker believes her vision is one of her strengths, allowing her to find open teammates and set herself up in the slot for good scoring opportunities. But as much as she loves to score, she knows she has to be a complete player.
“I think offensively most of my game comes naturally, but the D zone is what I really wanted to focus on the last couple of years,” she said.
Last season, she set a school record — and led the nation — with 12 game-winning goals. This year, she’s had the game-winner three times. Part of that, she said, is happenstance — scoring the second goal in a 5-1 victory, for instance — but some of it is due to her intensity. She loves playing when a game is on the line.
“When the game’s close I become very competitive and I don’t want to lose,” she said. “I think that’s why a lot of times the puck will land on my stick and then I’ll poke it in the back of the net.”
Though her dream is to play on an Olympic team, Decker has other plans, too.
Academics always have been important, and she was selected Wisconsin’s Female Student-Athlete of the Year as a sophomore. The human development and family studies major some day hopes to coach, perhaps even at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the prep school she attended in Faribault, Minn.
Still, she knows hockey, which she’s been playing since her two older brothers put her out on the ice as a little girl, some day will end for her.
“Especially as female athlete and a female hockey player, you have to realize that hockey can only take you so far and you’re going to have to face the real world eventually,” Decker said. “I think you have to keep that in mind always.”
Until then, though, she’s focused on taking the next step — or however many thousand she needs — to improve her game and help the Badgers repeat.
Red Line Editorial, Inc.