AUBURN — On the Leavitt/Edward Little girls’ hockey roster, five players are listed on defense, plus two goalies.

Of the seven, five are freshmen.

It’s an arrangement that traditionally screams “building year,” and typically would keep a coach sweating bullets even inside the coldest rinks in the state.

Not the Red Hornets, though, and not Shon Collins. Not with the caliber of first-year players they welcomed into the fold this season, most of whom shared a long run of success on the youth travel circuit.

And certainly not with Danica Nadeau in the middle of it all.

A junior with a nose for the puck and a natural feel for the game, Nadeau has emerged this season as a physical, verbal and emotional leader for the top-ranked team in Eastern Maine.

“She’s that quarterback back there that sets the tone,” Collins said.

Nadeau short-circuits countless scoring opportunities by opponents and starts just as many for the Red Hornets.

Thursday’s game at Yarmouth/Freeport exhibited the completeness of that game. Nadeau intercepted no fewer than 10 passes deep in the Red Hornets’ defensive zone, lightening freshman goalie Savannah Shaw’s workload.

She also set up two goals by senior sniper Taylor Landry, one after pouncing in a puck in the defensive end and another by getting the better of a collision in neutral ice.

“Dani is a really skilled player. Her stick-handling skills are so good,” said Landry, who has continued piling up goals after scoring her 100th as a junior. “With her back there, it really helps the movement with fast passes and making sure to get it out fast.”

And Nadeau isn’t afraid to take a penalty — good, bad or indifferent — when the situation demands it.

Her hook of the Clippers’ Katherine Clemmer stopped a probable breakaway in the third period and likely preserved the shutout in a 2-0 triumph.

“There were a few that she broke up late in the game that were just nice defensive plays, nice hustle,” Collins said.

Nadeau’s tenacious two-way skills blossomed during her sophomore season.

Leavitt Little advanced all the way to the regional final. She notched the assist on Landry’s game-winning goal with less than a second remaining in double-overtime against Lewiston in the semis.

“Taylor is always where she needs to be,” Nadeau said. “She gets those pucks whenever I dump them.”

That team lost defensive stalwarts Shelbea Russell, Sydney Nadeau and Shaylin Collins to graduation. Nadeau and junior goalie Tori Sanford were the only veterans to return.

First-year blueliners Ally MacKenzie, Kylie Bureau, Kaylee Younk and Angel Drouin have blended in seamlessly for the Red Hornets (15-3), in large part due to their veteran mentor.

“They’re much more experienced than a lot of freshmen in the state. They all played together, I believe, except for one,” Nadeau said. “It doesn’t feel really any different because they’re really skilled. I’m lucky to have them.”

Despite that success at the younger levels, moving up to varsity and facing the likes of Scarborough, Greely and Lewiston is a steep learning curve.

The Red Hornets never veered off the road, though, not even after a 1-2 start. They responded with 12 straight wins.

All but three of Leavitt Little’s victories have been shutouts.

Nadeau scored two goals and added an assist Saturday in a 4-0 win at York to close the regular season.

That set up Monday night’s KVAC championship game against Lewiston at Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

“She’s with four freshmen and she’s handled it well all season. You always see her talking with them during practice. She’s really mentored them and helped slow the game down for them a little bit,” Collins said. “Because there is a transition, even though they’ve played travel, to high school. She’s been great.”

The Red Hornets’ three seniors notice, too.

“She knows where to be at all times,” Landry said.

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