When Nick Austin came to Benilde-St. Margaret's as a freshman, he was joining a team which had won a state title the previous season and, many felt, could repeat that feat in 2013.
Little thought was given to the 14-year old blue liner as he was slotted as fifth/sixth defenseman. He filled that role admirably, playing in all 28 games while registering three assists and a +11 rating.
Fast forward to the current season and he's now a top defenseman who has never missed a game in four seasons and, as a senior co-captain, has seven goals, 21 points and a +29 rating, having come into the season with three goals, 23 points and a +30 rating in three previous campaigns.
"Nick's role evolved over four years as he evolved and grew as a player," BSM assistant coach John Russo said. "He came in as a ninth grader with a good set of skills and saw the ice very well. However, he had the physical strength of a 14-year old player.
"As a freshman, Nick got ice time against opponents he could physically handle. He was a dependable sixth defenseman learning high school hockey.
"As a senior, he is physically and mentally mature. His role is to play every other shift against the best players our opponents put on the ice."
His rise to a leader on the Red Knight blue line, as well as becoming one of the state's top defenseman, has been a key to BSM going 15-0-1 this season and earning the number one ranking among Class AA schools.
"The biggest difference this year from last is confidence," Austin said. "I've tried to be more offensive in games than I did in the past."
Russo, who coaches the team's defensemen, expanded on that thought.
"Nick's offensive improvement is a combination of a natural progression of his game, intentionally getting him involved in our offense and hard work.
"He joins the rush as well as any defenseman in the state and we encourage him to get up the ice. He also invested a lot of time in the off-season improving his shot."
The offensive component of Austin's game has been his biggest improvement, and has been vital to several Red Knight wins.
His first goal of the season helped spark the Red Knights to a 3-0 lead against Eden Prairie, Dec. 11, the team ranked number at the time. He then helped set up the game-winning goal in overtime as BSM established itself as the state's top-ranked team.
That game began a four-game goal-scoring streak, which included the game-winning goal, and an assist on the game-tying goal, four days later in a 4-3 win over third-ranked Blaine.
In BSM's final game of the Sports Authority Holiday Classic, Austin had a career-best performance with two goals, four assists and 10 shots on goal.
The Red Knights needed those two goals as the first came with seven seconds remaining in the third period and an extra attacker on the ice. The second came three minutes, 42 seconds into overtime to give his team a come-from-behind, 4-3 win.
But his offensive contributions can't overshadow his play in his own zone.
Austin has been on the ice for just eight of BSM's 24 even-strength goals. He's had a positive plus/minus rating in 11 of 16 games and has not finished a game with a negative rating.
As much as his offense has contributed to the team's success, his leadership has been equally important.
Austin scored the game-winning goal in BSM's come-from-behind, 4-3 win over third-ranked Blaine.
Austin leads the team in shots on goal (68) and plus/minus rating (+29) through 16 games.
"We wanted to lead by example," Austin said of himself and co-captains Peter Heimbold, Auggie Moore and Zach Risteau. "After not doing as well as we had hoped last year, the whole senior class really started to go all in, which really set the tone for our season so far.
"I don't really think about being a captain that much. I just try to put my best foot forward every day because it's my last year of high school hockey and I know I'll regret it if I don't."
"Nick began his time as a quiet 9th grader learning the ropes," Russo added. "Four years later he is an impressive young man who is a vocal senior captain.
"He leads both on and off the ice, and he is respected by his peers and coaches. His leadership and play have been critical to our success."
If Austin leads by example, who had a good example to follow himself. Brother, Johnny ('14), who racked up 51 points and was +52 in two seasons before moving onto the University of Connecticut, where he is a sophomore on the Huskies' blue line.
"I learned a lot from my brother when I played with him," Nick said. "He has also shared with me how much commitment it actually takes to play Division I hockey."
Austin strives, like his brother, to play at the top level of college hockey and, possibly, beyond. Yet, he's focused on one thing.
He came into high school hockey on a team which was one step away from making it to the state tournament. He would like to end his career by leading his team to the tournament and a title.
Tag(s): Benilde-St. Margaret's