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NWHL Preview: Whitecaps’ secret-turned-star Curtis faces new pressure in sophomore season

She didn't know what to expect last season, nor did anyone else, but Jonna Curtis lit up the NWHL en route to the Newcomer of the Year award. Now in her second season, the Whitecaps' secret weapon has to deal with newfound expectations.
Kirsten Burton/NWHL

Kirsten Burton/NWHL

Jonna Curtis admits now that she was nervous. Heading into the 2018-19 season, the then-Minnesota Whitecaps rookie didn’t know what to expect. Truth be told, before the announcement the Whitecaps were entering the league, she thought her playing days were over and she had come to accept that. But then the team showed up, she hopped aboard and by season’s end, Curtis had established herself as one of the biggest surprises in the league, a high-scoring freshman who captured Newcomer of the Year honors and hoisted the Isobel Cup.

Now, as she prepares for her second season with the Whitecaps, Curtis does so with the confidence she can contribute but a new challenge laid out before her.

Last season, before she turned heads and opened eyes with an oh-she’s-the-real-deal eight goal, 19-point performance in 18 games – and make that an even 20 points if you include post-season production – Curtis was an unknown, a surprise. She could catch opponents off guard, take advantage of the opposition’s focus on some of Minnesota’s other stars. But this season? Well, the secret’s out and there’s no flying under the radar.

“That's always the hard part about having a good year or a good season,” Curtis said. “I feel like there's a little target on your back after that and people know about you. It's kind of nice when nobody knows about you and they're like, 'Oh, who's that?' So, I do think that it'll be a little different in that aspect.”

Also different: Curtis won’t have some of the familiar faces around to relieve the pressure. Though the Whitecaps will have 11 returnees this season, including a number of players who were integral to last season’s success, such as Amanda Boulier, Allie Thunstrom and Emma Stauber, Minnesota’s roster was impacted by a summer of upheaval in the women’s game that resulted in an exodus of a number of top NWHL talents. Each club had its losses ranging from noteworthy top-line skaters to mid-lineup pluggers who were difference-makers of their own. But Minnesota was hit hard, as American Olympians Kendall Coyne Schofield, Hannah Brandt and Lee Stecklein were among those who won’t be on the Whitecaps’ roster this coming campaign.

Minnesota sought out reinforcements, of course. Of note, University of Minnesota standout Nicole Schammel, who helped lead the Golden Gophers to the national championship final and finished 12th in the nation with 16 goals and 47 points in 39 games last season, signed on with the Whitecaps this summer. Minnesota also brought aboard Metropolitan Riveters sniper Audra Richards and two-time NCAA champion Sydney Baldwin, among others. But Curtis understands that regardless of who will be lining up beside her, there’s now an expectation that she’ll produce.

“I definitely do feel that pressure,” she said. “I want to continue to do as well as I did last year and continue to be someone that people look to, but at the same time I'm going to try to not have that pressure impact my performance and try to keep that mindset that I'm having fun, I'm playing, keep it as a positive experience.”

That’s the ethos Curtis is hoping will propel her forward this season, too, and guide her in her quest to become more than some one-season wonder. Looking back, Curtis said that she was far too hard on herself and at times took the game far too seriously throughout her four-year tenure at University of New Hampshire. But with everything going on away from the rink now, not the least of which is a career away from the game, Curtis has new perspective.

“I'm still very serious about it, but I'm less hard on myself,” Curtis said. “I make sure to have fun and enjoy the moment. I don't know how long this is going to last. I hope that it can continue, but I'm enjoying what I have right now and that I can continue to play. I feel like that's helped me a lot. I'm out there and I'm having fun, and I believe when you're having fun, that's when you play your best.”

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