As the calendar turns and the season is just past the halfway point for the Penn State men's ice hockey team, the first question to head coach Guy Gadowsky was how well progress was being made "at the deep end of the pool."
Jokingly, Gadowsky replied, "The deep end comes next year."
With the start of Big Ten hockey looming then, it most certainly will be tougher, but for a first season as a Division I varsity program, there are very few things about which Gadowsky can complain right now.
"Overall we're very happy with the general direction of where we're going," Gadowsky said. "We're happy with the leadership of the team. That's probably the most important thing this year - that they're taking very seriously and setting standards, the foundation, they're taking seriously"
The Nittany Lions (8-9) are just below .500, they have a handful of wins over quality teams, they are generating plenty of offense and getting good effort defensively and in goal and they are seeing progress in the general track of a fledgling program.
"Possibly we're being a little impatient, but that's OK," Gadowsky said. "As a whole we're very happy with the improvements we've made."
Gadowsky said progress has been made in some specific goals set before the season, while others lag behind - and some of those high and low points have surprised him.
One area that has been a pleasant surprise is the offense. The team is averaging 2.8 goals and 37.8 shots per game. Getting that many shots, regardless of how many of them are high-quality opportunities, is a good sign for a first-year program. It would not have been unreasonable to expect the Nittany Lions to have to work much harder to get shots and be forced to play much more defensive each night.
Another happy surprise has been some of the teams they have beaten, like Rochester Institute of Technology, Air Force and, in their last game of 2012, Ohio State.
There will be plenty of other tough tests next season against the powers of the Big Ten, but at least the Nittany Lions know they can beat at least one of their conference brethren despite their youth.
"It's encouraging, that's for sure," Gadowsky said. "To beat them in a conference-type setting is going to be - we definitely have to get a lot better. We know that. But (the win) is encouraging because it lets us know that we've come a long way and lets us know we're going in the right direction."
Another high point is the leadership he has seen from his players, both in the locker room and on the ice, and is what has made the transition easier. He compared it to his two previous Division I head coaching experiences at Alaska and Princeton, and said they were the keys to making fast progress.
The big difference, of course, was the previous two programs were already well established when he arrived on campus.
"In this situation we're all pretty much rookies, all pretty much freshmen at the Division I level, so we're doing it all together," Gadowsky said. "Because we've gone through it a couple times, we all realize and recognize the true important parts about setting standards and building a foundation. It's an easy thing to say but more difficult to keep everybody accountable."
The final two months of the season - the next two games are at Connecticut on Friday and Saturday before hosting two exhibition games against the U.S. under-18 national team Jan. 11-12 - will have goals fairly similar to the first three months. The concern remains less about wins and losses and more about continuing to work on the foundation.
The focus remains on habits, on making things work for the long term, and on-ice success is merely a by-product. The points of emphasis at practices and in games will be a little different. He would like to spend less time practicing even-strength situations and more on special teams like power plays and penalty killing.
"It's hard to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks," Gadowsky said. "You want to focus on a few areas at a time."
Taking pieces at a time is part of the slow progress necessary to get through an inaugural season - and be ready to swim at the deep end next fall.