By Yoo Jee-ho – Yonhap News Agency

In prepping for the Asian Winter Games, South Korean women’s hockey players practiced before empty seats at Tsukisamu Gymnasium in Sapporo, Japan, on Wednesday, and with plenty of butterflies in their stomachs.

American-born coach Sarah Murray worked the 20-player team through a 75-minute practice session at the arena, which will host the women’s hockey tournament at the eighth Winter Asiad. The opening ceremony is Sunday, but women’s hockey will commence on Saturday with all six nations in action.

South Korea will face Thailand, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, China and Japan in a round-robin play, with the top three teams taking home the medals. South Korea is trying to win its first Winter Asiad medal in women’s hockey.

Murray’s team has been in Japan for two weeks. South Korea played Germany and Austria, and a local women’s team earlier this month in another town in Hokkaido, and then got their first look at Tsukisamu Gymnasium Wednesday.

Murray ran the players through some five-on-five and one-on-one situations, and also some drills on special teams and breakaways.

“The girls are a little bit nervous because there’s the big snow sculpture of the squirrel (the event’s mascot) and the logos outside,” Murray told Yonhap News Agency after practice. “They’re starting to feel ‘good nervous.’ This is something we’ve been working toward since I arrived here (in 2014). This is one year before the Olympics (in South Korea’s PyeongChang). This is a really good test for us.”

   South Korea has come a long way to even have medal aspirations at the Asian Games. Last year, South Korea finished second at the 2016 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Women’s World Championship Division II Group A, its highest position ever at an IIHF championship.

As significant as it will be to win a medal here, Murray said the Olympics in 2018 will mean even more to her team. And there’s nothing like putting some of her young players through trial by fire this month.

“We have three players that have never played at world championships before because they were under age when I first came here,” Murray said in reference to three of eight teenagers on the team who were just 13 in 2014. “This will be their first international tournament. They’re very excited to have this opportunity.”