ST. PAUL — Like most hockey-playing girls in the Twin Cities, Luci Bianchi grew up following the University of Minnesota. But with a sister playing at St. Thomas, Luci always followed that team in purple as well.

As the Tommies prep for their first season as a Division I women’s hockey program, Bianchi and the other skaters for St. Thomas who are making the jump to college hockey’s top level know that there is a challenge on the horizon.

“It’s a big step up from D-III. I’ve noticed the pace of our practice is a lot higher and it’s an interesting thing to have transfers come and fifth-years come, and that whole dynamic, meeting new people. We attracted a lot of attention going from D-III to D-I,” said Bianchi, who played prep hockey at Bloomington Jefferson. “A lot of us have always dreamed of playing being able to go D-I in a backdoor way is awesome.

"Coming to the WCHA, which has the best teams in the country, we will just approach that with grace. We’re going to work really hard and compete really hard and trust each other.”

Speaking to reporters at the WCHA’s preseason conference call, Bianchi and Tommies head coach Joel Johnson acknowledged that their team was picked eighth in the eight-team conference, but there is a thought that those low expectations can be a motivator.

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“Coach Johnson said on the first or second day (of practice) that comparison is the thief of joy. I don’t think we need to compare ourselves to Wisconsin, who was chosen first, or anyone else in this conference,” Bianchi said. “Once we compare ourselves to others, the attention goes away from our team and onto something else. But there’s a lot of inspiration from being picked last. It’s fun being the underdog.”

After 16 years as an assistant at the Minnesota over two stints, Johnson gets to run his own team this winter. In fact, he’s running two of them, serving as the head coach for Team USA at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China as well. He admitted there will be some juggling and he will rely on the Tommies’ assistant coaches at times.

“The exciting part of me is the ability to fill both roles at the same time with our practice schedule. As long as I’m not traveling with Team USA, I’m looking forward to being here every day on the ice and behind the bench,” said Johnson. “We’ve got such a great coaching staff whether I’m behind the bench or not I don’t see it changing how we communicate and the decisions we make.”

Having spent so much time working with the Gophers, Johnson admitted that the Tommies’ Jan. 8 game at Ridder Arena will be special, but he has much to consider before that happens, including their debut as a D-I program.

“I’ve got next Friday at Ohio State circled (on my calendar). When we get the opportunity to play Minnesota, it’s going to be great. I’ve got such respect and friendship with Brad (Frost) and their whole coaching staff now, and obviously the players are a special part of my history,” Johnson said. “I’ll enjoy it. It will look different. But I’ve got so many great relationships with other coaches and other programs, that I’m looking forward to going to Ohio State, I’m looking forward to hosting Bemidji (State) and then off and on we go with the rest of the season.

The Tommies open with a two-game series at Ohio State on Sept. 24-25.