NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — For a team to contend for a conference title just three years into the program’s history would seem ridiculous to most. To contend for the national title would seem even more outlandish.
However, for Manhattanville, the seemingly outlandish has become a reality with a thrilling 4-3 win over RIT to claim the 2002 ECAC East Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship and a berth in the inaugural NCAA Division III tournament.
Just when Manhattanville seemed to have the game firmly in hand, with a 3-0 lead, RIT tallied three goals in the first 9:28 of the third period, from Erin Topley, Jen Gorczynski and Tina Bessette. In addition to tying the game, the momentum was unanimously in favor of RIT at that point.
“We fed off of them in the third once it was tied up,” said Nicole Blais. “When we went ahead and slowed down, RIT slowed down also and once they picked it up, we started to pick it up again. We used their energy to our advantage at the end.”
No one picked up the pace more than Blais, as she scored her most important goal of the year with just 2:09 remaining to pick up MVP honors. With the win, the Valiants earn a berth in the inaugural NCAA Division III tournament.
“It all depends on how hard we play,” said Blais when asked about the Valiants’ chances in the NCAAs. “We just work hard all the time and give 100 percent and will never be outworked on the ice. We just never give up or let up.”
Manhattanville netminder Nicole Elliott finished with 35 saves, including 18 in the third period alone. RIT’s Elaine Vonderembse also made 35 stops.
“Nicole stood on her head for the last five minutes and made some spectacular game-saving stops,” said Rick Seeley, Manhattanville head coach.
The Valiants, ranked No. 5 in the nation, were outplayed by RIT for the first eight minutes of the opening period until freshman Kelly-Ann Wojciechowski put home her own rebound to put Manhattanville up 1-0.
The two teams went back and forth for the next nine minutes before freshman Cherie Stewart took the puck down the left side, crossed it through the crease and right to a waiting Blais, who put it home for her 13th goal of the season and a 2-0 advantage after one period.
In the second period, the two teams played over 19 minutes of scoreless hockey until sophomore assistant captain Melissa Hawkins fired in a goal from just inside the blue line and past the frozen RIT netminder for a seemingly-comfortable 3-0 lead. Just prior to that, Valiant goaltender Nicole Elliott made a spectacular save on Gorczynski to keep the Tigers off the board.