A vision nearly unrealized. Such was the status of Castleton’s postseason hopes, just weeks into the 2013-14 season. With a modest .500 record, the Spartans were lukewarm at best in terms of contending for a ECAC East championship.
Saturday, coach Bill Bowes’s team will vie for the aforementioned conference championship against No. 3 Norwich. At 16-9-2 overall, and with a defensive unit that ranks in the top 10 nationally, the landscape has dramatically changed. The Spartans posted a 36-135-7 overall program record before Bowes arrives on the central Vermont campus.
The opportunity to make their presence known on a national level did not come on a chalkboard.
“I always thought the Xs and Os were overrated,” Bowes said. “I’m not sure one coach has an advantage in any way in that respect. The attitude has changed since last season. They feel like than can go on the ice at anytime and win. In my opinion, that’s a dangerous team.”
The Spartans eliminated third-seed Salve Regina last weekend to advance.
“Big difference from last year was our attitude,” said goalie Paula Stephens, who is seventh nationally in minutes played and fourth in save percentage. “At times, our room was a hostile place to be, but I think we have a lesser sense of entitlement now, and that’s part of our success. We’re all on board with how far we can take the team together, rather than thinking about it on an individual basis.”
Stephens made a season-high 50 saves in the semifinal victory over the Seahawks.
“What’s changed for us is our players have gone through a total team changeover in regards to work ethic and team togetherness,” Bowes said. “This, combined with our talent, makes us a team that can really beat anyone.”
“Our defense now is much more confident now than it’s been in the past,” said Spartans captain Brie Narodowy, a junior who played her high school hockey at Mt. St. Charles in northern Rhode Island. “We have that connection now that we didn’t seem to possess earlier in the season.
Stephens, who has registered four of her six shutouts following the Thanksgiving break, agrees with Narodowy as to the current approach of her team’s efforts in their own end.
“We’re so confident when we are up 1-0 because we know we can rely on our defense now.”
“This team has welcomed in new players like I’ve never seen before,” said Bowes. “In the past, we weren’t as welcoming. All of this transition to a new attitude has come about because everyone believes that this is the unselfish way to help our team.”
Nicoline Jensen, a sophomore from Denmark, leads the team in scoring with 34 points, while classmate Anna Daniels tops the club in goals with 14.
A 4-4-0 record up to the Thanksgiving holiday break seemed pedestrian, but a pair of one-goal defeats at the hands of Plattsburgh and Norwich proved to be a good measuring stick for the Spartans chances the remainder of the way.
“I inherited a hockey team that didn’t have much in terms of real hockey players,” said Bowes in looking back at his first year (2011-12) with the Spartans. “Midway through the season, we added one player to the roster, and that was Paula Stephens. With her on board, we were able to win 10 games, which to me was a huge achievement, a big success. Last season brought a slight, but significant up tick with a 23 point season (9-12-5).”