The 2011-12 NCAA Division III women’s hockey regular season gets underway this weekend with a star-studded tournament featuring four top-10 teams in the 2nd annual East/West Hockey Classic hosted at Norwich’s Kreitzberg Arena in Northfield, Vt.
The defending national champion and top-ranked Norwich Cadets will have their work cut out for them right off the bat, with two games against ECAC West powerhouses in No. 2 RIT and No, 10 Elmira. Defending ECAC East Tournament champion and No. 8 Manhattanville will also get a crack at each of the ECAC West schools as the Classic features four predetermined match-ups to eliminate the possibility of schools from the same conference playing each other.
“We started the tournament last year to kick the season off with a bang,” Norwich coach Mark Bolding said. “I think people realize this year how important those nonconference games are. Without success in your nonconference games, you really shoot your odds of advancing to the NCAAs, so you need to play well early.”
The Cadets won’t have long to rest on their laurels after they raise their 2011 national championship banner to the rafters of Kreitzberg Arena on Friday night. Elmira will be chomping at the bit to put behind its ECAC West play-in round loss. Then on Saturday, NU will take on RIT in a rematch of last year’s national championship game at 6 p.m.
“Elmira and RIT are certainly going to bring it with their best game,” Bolding said. “Elmira is talented. They added some great freshman and a couple transfers. They always know how to get back to their winning ways, and I expect them to be very tough. RIT has also added some quality recruits, and they’re going to be very hungry for a little redemption against us. It will be grudge match for sure.”
Although Norwich lost its three-year captain and all-time scoring leader in Sophie Leclerc, the Cadets still return six of their top seven scorers from last year.
Senior forward Julie Fortier heads the list of returnees after ranking second in the nation to only Leclerc last season with 23 goals and 22 assists for 45 points. She currently sits at 62 goals and 58 assists for 120 points, and enters 2011-12 just 43 points shy of Leclerc’s program record.
Melissa Rundlett will take over the captain’s ‘C’ from Leclerc this season after establishing new career highs with 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points. She also led the team with six game-winning tallies. Lortie (Cornwall, Ontario) was named the ECAC East Rookie of the Year after leading all conference freshmen in scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points.
“Julie [Fortier], Renee [Lortie], and Rundlett are comfortable with each other, and finished last year as probably the top line in all of D-III, so we’re hoping they can continue,” Bolding said.
The Cadets’ second line though, will be one of the keys heading into the season. Junior winger Jillayne DeBus (Howell, Mich.) returns after an outstanding first year with NU after transferring in from Elmira following her freshman season. DeBus tallied an even 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points while playing alongside Leclerc and the departed Brittane Michaud.
She’ll be joined by two freshmen this year in Tyne Gove (Berwick, Ontario) and Kaycie Anderson (Maple Plain, Minn.).
“Jill can put up numbers consistently, and we’re confident we’ve got two quality freshmen forwards in Tyne and Kaycie that should be able to step up into top-six roles and give us two solid lines,” Bolding said.
Elmira will enter Friday’s match-up with Norwich looking to shrug off the ill effects of last year’s disappointing 16-8-2 season.
“Everyone that is familiar with our program understands that last year was a down year in terms of our standards around here,” Elmira coach Greg Fargo said. “There were a lot of factors to that, but primarily it came down to losing two pretty big classes in 2009 and 2010.
“We knew we were young, and I think our youth was a factor in why we weren’t able to win as many big games as we would have liked to. We had some inconsistencies along the way, and a few hiccups like losing to Buffalo State and then Utica in the first round of the playoffs.”
However, unlike the last two seasons, this year Elmira lost just one senior and has its top nine scorers from last year back.
“I think we’ve got a really good group,” Fargo said. “Everyone around this program is pretty enthusiastic on how things are going and how the team looks so far. We’re carrying a bigger roster this year, and have a little more competition within our own team. We only lost one player to graduation, and we’ve got nine faces on our roster.”
Sophomore forward Tori Charron leads the way for Elmira after leading Division III with 28 goals last season.
“Obviously Tori did a lot of our goal scoring last year, but now we’ve got a ton of sophomores that have a year under their belt now, along with some new faces who should make an impact,” Fargo said. “Our recruiting class this year has helped us add depth at every position.”
Heading the list of newcomers are two Division I transfers from Wayne State after the program was cut at the end of last season.
“Kate Gaskin and Lisa Marshall should help us right off the bat and provide some leadership,” Fargo said. “I expect them both to have good years. Overall, we’ve added some scoring depth. I don’t know if we have another Tori Charron-type player as far as numbers-wise, but we definitely have some kids that will chip in and help shoulder the burden offensively.”
“Brooke Wilgosh on defense should have a successful career at Elmira. She’s a smart defenseman that moves the puck really well. Ashley Ryan has tremendous skill at forward and great hockey awareness, which should help contribute right away.”
RIT enters 2011-12 looking to build off a banner year for the program after making its second NCAA Tournament appearance and hosting the Frozen Four, but falling just short to Norwich in the national championship game.
The Tigers will have some shoes to fill though, after losing Laura Hurd Award winner Sarah Dagg to graduation, along with two other All-Americans in Katie Stack and Traci Galbraith.
“They were the voices on the team for a couple years, and now we’re just trying to re-establish who’s going to take over that stuff,” RIT head coach Scott McDonald said.
Although the Tigers lost some horses, they still return a plethora of talent up front that produced plenty of points last season. Leading scorer Kourtney Kunichika returns for her sophomore year looking to build off a sensational freshman campaign where she tallied 15 goals and 28 assists for 43 points.
“We’re certainly not in a bad situation as we return a lot of juniors and sophomores,” McDonald said. “The core group of Kourtney, Ariane [Yokoyama], Tenecia [Hiller], Kolbee [McCrea], and Kim [Schlattman] are back, and they’ll be ready. They are going to play with a chip on their shoulders. That’s the way they have been since they got here, and I think it’s even bigger this year.”
Last year’s 5-2 loss to Norwich in the national championship game was a bit of stunner after RIT had pounded its way through the regular season, won the ECAC West Tournament, and then disposed of Adrian (10-1) and Middlebury (5-2) on its way to the title game.
“Last year happened,” McDonald said. “Fair and square Norwich won and they deserved it. We didn’t play like we deserved it that day. That’s been on my mind, and I’m sure it has been on our players’ minds all summer. Where else would we rather want to start than at Norwich. We’ll watch them hang their banner on Friday night and then use it as motivation.”
One newcomer that will help offset the loss of RIT’s big three from a year ago will be freshman Celeste Brown, who has been seeing time with Kunichika and Yokoyama early on.
“Celeste brings some size to that line,” McDonald said. “Ariane and Kourtney aren’t very big players, but they’re certainly very skilled players. She brings a different dynamic to that line with a power forward-type game.”
The Tigers will also have the luxury of stud sophomore goalie Laura Chamberlain, who burst onto the scene last year at the East/West Hockey Classic after being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
“Having Laura back is huge,” McDonald said. “She’s seen it all too. She’s been full circle having the extreme high of winning her first career start at Norwich and then the low of losing in the last game to Norwich. What she does for us is every game we have a chance to win with her in the net. She’s the backbone of the team right now, with the ability to keep us in a game if we have a slow start, but also shut the door if we get up a goal or two.”
Chamberlain had an 18-2-2 record along with a 1.15 goals against average and a .944 save percentage to go along with six shutouts last season.
RIT established itself as the team to beat at this very tournament one year ago, and McDonald said he was excited to be going back once again.
“It’s a great early test,” he said. “It could be a national championship weekend. All four teams are certainly capable of being there in the end. Our first two games of the year are against national tournament teams, and those are the types of games you want to play. We’re going to learn right from the get go that you can’t look past anybody, because if we’re waiting for the Norwich game on Saturday, Manhattanville will embarrass us on Friday.”
Manhattanville is the newcomer to the field this year, replacing New England College as the fourth and final team.
The Valiants will be returning to Kreitzberg Arena for the first time since winning the ECAC East Tournament title last March with a 4-2 upset win over Norwich.
Manhattanville will be under new direction though this year. David Turco was elevated to the head coach position after spending two years as the assistant to Eric Lang, who is now the Manhattanville men’s coach.
“I’m very excited to be taking over as head coach, and it’s an honor to have this position,” Turco said. “We’ve got a great returning crowd that has been built here over the last two seasons. The team has been pushing itself pretty hard in the preseason after getting a taste of the NCAA tournament last season.”
Turco will have a strong returning group headed by two juniors in Katie Little and Mary Rose Morrison, who posted 34 and 28 points respectively.
“The bulk of our team is our junior class with Mary, Katie, and Lynsey Schill,” Turco said. “We also return Alyssa Taylor, who was on the team two years ago and is back this year and should add another offensive punch for us this year. We also have Haleigh Hutchinson in our sophomore class, who had a great freshman campaign and now with a year under her belt I feel she’ll do even more positive things for us.”
Turco said two newcomers to keep an eye on this season for the Valiants will be Michelle Meggiolaro and Aubrey Bachand.
“Michelle Meggiolaro is a freshman forward that will add some speed and tenacity to our lineup,” he said. “Aubrey Bachand is a big strong kid that should also help add some depth for us.”
Manhattanville also returns junior goaltender Emy Cote, who was named the ECAC East Tournament Most Valuable Player after stymieing Norwich in the finals.
“Emy is the backbone of our team,” Turco said. “She’s an assistant captain for this year, and is a leader on and off the ice for us. She does everything the right way, and we’re always confident when we have her between the posts.”
Manhattanville’s addition to the East/West Hockey Classic puts the tournament at a whole new level this year and now rivals, if not tops, the field at the Panther-Cardinal Classic.
“We’re using this tournament as a measuring stick going up against some of the top competition in the country,” Turco said. “We’re looking forward to getting a chance to see where we stack up nationally, and maybe make a couple waves early with a couple wins in two of the biggest games on our schedule.”
You couldn’t ask for a better way to kick off the 2011-12 season with four top-10 teams all converging on one arena. It will surely be worth the trip for anyone able to make it to Northfield, Vt. this weekend. All that’s left to do now is drop the puck! Happy hockey season everyone!