Competing in its first NCAA tournament since 2003, upstart Williams is apt to possess a bit of collective apprehension in taking to the road for a meeting with top-seeded Plattsburgh. While a one vs. eight scenario seems daunting, the Ephs have forged valid credentials in facing such a task.
The NESCAC champions enter the tournament with the fourth-ranked strength of schedule and third-best opponents win percentage ranking among eastern-based teams.
The game-tested Ephs (15-9-3) are looking to continue the trend against the Cardinals (25-1-1) who have owned the No. 1 slot from start to finish.
The eventual benefits of a rigorous schedule grind are not lost on coach Meghan Gillis.
“Playing a strong strength of schedule this season, and the NESCAC being a very competitive league, has allowed us to be in many different situations, which has helped us develop as a team,” Gillis said.
Gillis, who had a stellar playing career at Bowdoin and ranks third on the all-time scoring list, took control of the Ephs in 2011-12.
The season prior to her arrival, the club trudged through a dismal 4-17-1 record. A pair of markedly improved campaigns followed, but both fell short of the mid-level mark. Through the initial stages of the current season, the Ephs overall performance, for various reasons, was admittedly less than awe inspiring.
“Early on in the season, we battled a number of injuries and illnesses that impacted the team and the lineup,” said Gillis. “We also had seven first-year players adjusting to moving up to college hockey.”
Following a pair of victories to begin the 2014 portion of the schedule, a mid-January encounter with the Norwich Cadets apparently served as a stimulus for the team’s turnabout.
“As we got into January, February and now March, we were able to keep our lines more consistent, which has developed better chemistry on the ice,” Gillis said. “Another big transformation that I have witnessed is that each individual has bought into a ‘team first’ mentality. I am so proud of this group for doing whatever it takes for the betterment of the team. Overall, we have become stronger in the defensive zone and continually try to improve on our special teams.”
Senior captain Gabrielle Vukasin was front and center in the Ephs’ transformation that led to a torrid late-season run to the postseason.
“In the second half of the season, we started to really bond off the ice, and I think that transferred to the ice,” said Vukasin, who led the club in power play markers with six. “We have worked so hard the past four months to get here, and I am proud of the team.”
“We are really excited to be going to NCAAs for the first time,” said Cristina Bravi, one of five players in the nation to reach the 40-point level. “I think it’s a testament to how hard we’ve worked all year and how dedicated we’ve been to our team’s success.”
Since taking the conference title, the pinpoint focus for the Williams’ contingent has turned to solving the Plattsburgh puzzle, something only Plattsburgh’s ECAC West rival Elmira has accomplished.
“We have been breaking down what little parts of our game that we can work on to defend against a talented Plattsburgh squad; we also want to continue to improve on what we have been doing well to get us to this point in the season,” Gillis said. “Staying disciplined and away from the penalty box is always a key, but is of particular importance in the postseason. Only taking two penalties in the NESCAC championship game was crucial to our success. Plattsburgh is top of their conference in both power play and penalty killing, and we need to be ready to compete in all situations on Saturday. Limiting their PP chances will be of key importance.”