ELMIRA, N.Y. — It isn’t supposed to happen. It’s simply not supposed to happen.
A first-year program, all but two of the players freshmen, cannot win a national championship, no matter what division, gender or sport. It just can’t happen.
After an apparently unprecedented victory, the Elmira Soaring Eagles are the 2001-2002 NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey national champions in their first year of existence. Elmira defeated the Manhattanville Valiants, 2-1, in a classic battle to claim the title.
“I thought it was a great college hockey game for the national championship,” said Manhattanville coach Rick Seely.
“I knew it was going to be a tough battle today,” said Elmira coach Jamie Wood. “I knew it.”
It was the second time Elmira beat Manhattanville this year, the only two losses Manhattanville had. The first time, the game ended in a 3-0 score.
“I knew this game was going to be different,” Wood said, “because so much was on the line tonight.”
When so much is on the line, who else to turn to but Laura Hurd? The nation’s leading scorer tallied the winning goal 46 seconds into the third period.
“I had the puck, and I was going over the blue line,” Hurd explained. “There were two defensemen, so I knew I couldn’t go past them, so I shot it.”
Said Manhattanville goalie Renee Kirnan, “I knew it was Hurd, so I moved out a bit. She moved and took the shot. I didn’t control the rebound, and I was out of position.”
Finished Hurd, “I continued rushing into pick up the rebound,” out to Kirnan’s right side. “I got it on my backhand, and put it in.”
“It was a great shot,” Kirnan conceded.
Nicole Elliott started in net for Manhattanville, so the first goaltending battle was between Elliott and Edith Racine.
The deadlock didn’t last long as Elmira got on the board at 6:12 into the game. After a scrum in front and a whole bunch of players whacking at it, Lindsay Palmer was the last one to get a stick on it before it squirted over the line for a goal.
At that point, Manhattanville made a surprising move, pulling Elliott for Kirnan.
Explains Seely, “That was our plan going in. If there was an early goal, whether it was a good goal or not, we were going to change.”
Wood wasn’t critical. “I thought it was a good move. Their team responded to it.”
Now the goaltending battle was between Kirnan and Racine. And just as quickly, Manhattanville got one past Racine, 53 seconds after falling behind.
It was another goal that barely got across the line when Kristin Sahlem stuffed it in.
After that it was a battle royale between the goalies, who kept the opposition off the scoreboard till the third period.
For Racine, it was the rest of the game. And everybody had praise for her.
“Racine is one of the most clutch goalies I’ve ever seen,” Wood said.
Captain Michelle Rennie, one of the two non-freshmen on the team, a sophomore transfer from Mercyhurst, concurred, “She is the best goalie I’ve ever played with. Her work ethic is stellar. She shows up early for practice to take shots from the guys.”
“We’re really proud of Edith,” Hurd said. “She’s done it so much for us.”
Considering that Elmira is thought of as an offensive juggernaut, it is easy to overlook the areas that win championships — defense and goaltending. And with the biggest game of the year on the line, those areas shone for the Soaring Eagles.
As the game wore on, the end to end rushes were slowing down and the chances were harder to come by as both teams tightened up their defense, and of course the aforementioned goalie battle.
“I didn’t think we were going to win the game with one goal,” Seely said.
After Elmira scored the go-ahead tally, Manhattanville needed to pour it on. But, they were beginning to run out of gas.
“I thought we played hard,” said Seely. “Except for those last ten minutes.”
Despite that, they did have some good opportunities. However, Racine would have nothing of it.
With just under a minute left, Manhattanville pulled their goalie, and the Valiants forced two faceoffs.
How did Elmira handle the pressure? “We were trying to stay calm,” Rennie said. “Trying to stay focused.”
That calm helped Elmira get two good chances to score on the empty net, but Manhattanville defensemen made the blocks. It didn’t matter as the clock counted down and the home crowd exploded in celebration.
“All year the fan support has been great,” marveled Rennie. “So many of the other teams supported us and followed us. We are going to owe them big time.”
It was that fan support that helped lead Hurd to come to Elmira. “I came here to visit and attended a men’s game and loved the atmosphere.”
Did Wood expect to be in these finals? “I would have picked them [Manhattanville]. I wouldn’t have picked us.”
Who would? After all, they were just a first year program.