Preview: D-III Championship

Déjà Vu All Over Again

It’s the second year of the NCAA Division III hockey championship for women, and it looks like an instant replay. The championship is being held at Elmira, just like last year. Three of the four teams in last year’s tournament return. One semifinal match up has Bowdoin playing Manhattanville, just like last year. Bowdoin got here by beating Middlebury, just like last year. The other semifinal pits the lone Western representative against Elmira, just like last year. The only difference is Wis.-River Falls is coming from the West instead of Gustavus Adolphus.

However, that doesn’t mean this year’s tournament lacks for excitement. In fact, there is no reason to believe that there won’t be close, hard fought battles that will go down to the wire, with perhaps an overtime game, just like last year.

Consider these facts: Six of the top seven goalies in save percentage in the country and four of the top five defenses are in the tournament. That will be pitted against three of the top four offenses. It will be a classic case of strength vs. strength, which is the way it should be in a championship tournament.

“It’s an honor to be here with so many good teams,” Manhattanville coach Nicole Kirnan said. “On any given day, any one of these teams can walk away with it.”

The Bowdoin vs. Manhattanville semifinal will be played at 4:00 p.m. while the River Falls-Elmira game will be at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 21. The consolation and championship games are the next day at the same times, respectively.

Tickets for both days are $20 for adults and $10 for students, seniors, and children under 12. One day tickets are $12 and $6, respectively. For more information, call (607) 735-1730.

The Elmira games will be webcasted. To get to it, click on the NSNSports link off of the Elmira women’s hockey page.

The Quarterfinal Round

With seven teams qualifying for the NCAAs this year, there were three play-in games, or quarterfinals. All three games saw the favored home team win going away.

Out West, River Falls showed the strength of the NCHA, something Wis.-Stevens Point was never given an opportunity to do last year, by defeating St. Thomas, 5-1. First, they had to overcome a Tommies’ 1-0 lead after the first period on a goal by Tomery Stolz.

The Falcons took off in the second period where they outshot St. Thomas, 16-2, and scored four times on goals by Lisa McGuire, Tiff Stencil, Leah Baron, and Ali Slinden. Lindsy Carlson added another in the third period, and Marlene Yaeger made 17 saves for the win. River Falls went two for four on the power play.

In the rematch of the NESCAC title game, like we predicted in last week’s column, the odds favored the home team to return the favor, and that’s what Bowdoin did to Middlebury in near identical fashion with a shutout, 3-0. Britney Carr put the Polar Bears in the lead on a late first period goal. Gillian McDonald scored midway through the third period to seal the win and then scored an empty netter to finish it off. Emily McKissock got the win with 24 saves.

Meanwhile, Manhattanville disposed of Williams, 5-1, outshooting the Ephs, 50-20. In the first period alone, the shot margin was 19-3 while they built up a 3-0 lead with goals by Ali Annunziato, Jessica Temesy, and Kristin Sahlem while shorthanded. Jennifer Mulick and Cherie Stewart added goals in the second. Melissa Vandermyn broke the shutout for Williams early in the third. Renee Kirnan made 19 saves to get the win.

Bowdoin Polar Bears (22-1-3)

Last year, everybody was so surprised by Middlebury not making the semifinals that hardly anyone paid attention to the team that knocked them off. Then, when Bowdoin lost both games in the tournament, not many acknowledged just how good the Polar Bears were.

That won’t happen this year, for three reasons. One, Bowdoin is even better than last year. Two, Bowdoin knocked off Middlebury again, proving it wasn’t a fluke. Three, Bowdoin has proven they are capable of playing with Elmira this year when they tied, 2-2, back in November.

Up until the NESCAC championship, Bowdoin was the only team besides Elmira to be undefeated against Div. III opponents. Even with just one loss, to an excellent Middlebury team, Bowdoin has to be considered a very strong candidate to raise the trophy Saturday night.

Leading the way once again is Shelly Chessie, whom some consider to be the best in the country. With two games left in her career, she has amassed to this point 83 goals and 94 assists for a total of 177 points, moving her into first spot all time in Bowdoin history. This year, she registered 20-29–49.

Goal scoring is concentrated amongst five players — Chessie who leads the way, Beth Muir (17), Marissa O’Neil (16), Gillian McDonald (16), and Kirsti Anderson (10). Those five players along with a solid rounding out from rest of the cast, has given Bowdoin a 4.92 goals per game average.

Even more deadly is their power play which has a whopping 34.3% success rate. Even more impressive than that, is Bowdoin’s penalty killing — they have let up just one power play goal all season while scoring five shorthanded goals with McDonald having three of them. Against the Polar Bears, you may want to decline the penalty.

Bowdoin has the third best defense thanks a lot to Emily McKissock who has a 1.18 GAA and a .941 save pct.

This is perhaps the most well rounded team in the tournament. They play every facet of the game well.

Now, consider the circumstances of last year. They traveled to Middlebury for the NESCAC tournament. They were able to host the NCAA play-in game, but that came soon after they got back from Vermont, on Tuesday. After beating Middlebury, they didn’t have any time to rest, as they quickly got on a bus for their 500 mile trip from Brunswick, Maine to Elmira. They barely had any time to recover before having to face a mighty good Manhattanville team, which by now was their fourth game in eight days with a whole lot of miles in between. The fact that Bowdoin stretched the semifinal game into overtime is remarkable.

This year, they don’t have any of those travel concerns. They hosted the first round, played a whole week before the semis, and they were able to leisurely make their way to Elmira, arriving a day earlier than anyone else, providing plenty of time to rest and recover.

Couple that with the fact that Bowdoin is better than last year, and the New York State powers may be watching a team from New England performing the victory skate around the ice.

Elmira Soaring Eagles (21-4-2)

Last year, Elmira amazed the sports world with a run to a national championship in their very first year of existence as a varsity sport with all but two freshmen on the squad. In their second year, it’s gotten even more amazing.

For the two years that Elmira’s women’s hockey team has existed, they have lost just one game to Division III opponents. Once! The four losses this year were to Division I teams — twice each to Wayne State and Findlay. The last time Elmira lost to a Div. III school was way back on November 9, 2001. That’s an unbeaten streak of 47 (44-0-3). Now, they stand on the verge of a second consecutive national championship.

However, Elmira certainly isn’t presumptuous enough to think the trophy is simply going to be handed to them. It will most likely be a lot tougher this year as Bowdoin and Manhattanville have improved, and River Falls is quite capable of being the darkhorse, as they are perhaps the greatest unknown this year.

“Every team that is here is good,” Elmira coach Jamie Wood said. “We don’t take anything for granted.”

Last year, Elmira got by the Western team in a shootout, and then needed a third period goal by their star, Laura Hurd, to put away Manhattanville, 2-1.

Speaking of Laura Hurd, she hasn’t slowed down a bit. She sits on top of the national rankings with goals (32) and fourth in points (52). In her two years, she has accumulated 72 goals and 57 assists for 129 points. This year, one-third of her goals were on special teams — seven on the power play and four while shorthanded, tied for the nation’s lead.

Now, get this. Second on the team in scoring is a freshman. That’s right, the team that won a national championship with all but two freshmen, still went out and recruited, and managed to get one of the best rookies in the country, Jaclyn O’Neil. O’Neil scored 13 goals and 22 assists.

“We know we are going to have to bring in a few players every year, so in three years time, we won’t be losing everybody,” said Wood, explaining his recruiting strategy. “Last year we were playing with four defensemen, so we brought in the [Calic] twins [Sheena and Stacey] and Caitlin [Crowl] wanted to come here. For the forwards, Jaclyn has worked out real well for us.”

Thanks to the ECAC West tournament taking place a week before the season ended for many and the bye last week, Elmira hasn’t played in three weeks. That doesn’t seem to bother Wood who said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a real problem. Last year, we had a long layoff of two weeks. We have pretty intense practices.”

Elmira’s goaltending is very strong, and they will also be facing strong goaltending in the first game against River Falls.

“They have a terrific goalie,” Wood said. “We’ll try to get a lot of shots on net and try to get some traffic in front.”

“We’ll give our best effort and see what happens,” said Wood on his overall strategy for the tournament.

That best effort has produced one of the most amazing initial two years of a sports program.

Manhattanville Valiants (26-3-0)

Though not quite as amazing as Elmira, Manhattanville’s rise as a new program has still been very impressive. The program started in 1999, and in their third year, they were battling for the national championship, losing to Elmira by just one goal. Along the way, they ended Middlebury’s unprecedented 136-game Division III unbeaten streak.

Their yearly record has always been on the winning side, starting out at 15-8-0, and then progressing to 16-6-2, 23-2-2, and this year’s 26-3-0.

The program was built by Rick Seeley, whose abilities to start from scratch did not go unnoticed, as he was snatched away by Clarkson to build the Golden Knights’ Div. I program to debut next season.

Taking over is Nicole Kirnan, an assistant under Seeley. The Valiants didn’t miss a beat. After losing their season opener to Div. I Wayne State, Manhattanville only lost twice more this year to Elmira, by that haunting 2-1 score, and to RIT in an overtime upset.

Since that loss to RIT, Manhattanville regrouped with an eight game winning streak including two shutouts over Rensselaer as well as another victory against the Engineers in the ECAC East title game, two strong games against Southern Maine, avenged their loss to RIT, shutting them out in the conference semifinals, and totally dominated Williams in the NCAA quarterfinal.

Manhattanville is hot right now, scoring 41 goals in the last eight games, while letting up just four goals and no more than one in any game. Outside of two losses this year, Manhattanville has never let up more than two goals in a game.

The main reason for that is a goaltending tandem that every team can only dream about. “We have a very good situation where I don’t think we can go wrong,” Kirnan said about her tandem.

They have each played 13 games this year with Nicole Elliott having the slightly better stats with a 0.71 GAA and .954 save pct. Renee Kirnan has a 1.04 GAA and .940 save pct. Their GAA ranks them number two and three in the nation, and Elliott’s save pct. is number one.

They don’t necessarily alternate, as coach Kirnan will go with who she feels is hot at the moment. Best of all, the goalies have no problems with that.

“It just depends on who is hot; who matches up well,” coach Kirnan said. “They get along great. There is no animosity between them.”

Offensively, the Valiants are powered by a slew of players. Eight players have double digit goals with Jennifer Mulick leading the way with 22. Twelve players are in double digits with assists with Mulick and Jessica Temesy tied for the team lead at 24. And don’t forget about Cherie Stewart who backed up a superb freshman year with 18 goals and 22 assists in her sophomore season. This is a team that can beat you with any line out there.

Kirnan said, “We’re fortunate with our depth to have a tryout situation all the time.”

It’s that kind of competition in practice that spills over to the games which Kirnan hopes will lead them to their ultimate goal.

“Our goals at the beginning of the season was to defend the ECAC East title,” she said. “Then to win the national championship.”

This could be the time when Manhattanville reverses that 2-1 score.

Wisconsin-River Falls (20-4-4)

Like Manhattanville, River Falls’ program is four years old. However, the Falcons’ road to success has been a bit harder, as they started out at 3-15-0 in their first year. They worked their way up the ladder where they finished first in the NCHA this year and won the league’s tournament, thus giving them their first experience in the NCAAs.

However, after knocking off St. Thomas in the quarterfinals, they now have to face powerhouse Elmira.

“We’re excited to even get a chance to play them,” coach Joe Cranston said. “We’re just going to come in there and do the things we’ve done to get this far. We always feel if we can outwork a team, we can win.”

Will it take his team time to adjust to the Eastern teams? “We played Williams this year and Bowdoin the year before,” Cranston said. “It takes a little adjustment. Eastern schools are a little more offensive minded. Our [Western] big emphasis is on defense.”

It helps that River Falls has goaltender Marlene Yaeger who is third in the nation for save pct. at .942 and has a 1.49 GAA. Lindsy Carlson and Jody Hensch are the top two defenders, and Carlson also helps out on the power play, scoring six times with the advantage.

Though the Falcons don’t have a scorer anywhere near the top of the nation’s rankings, that doesn’t mean they can’t put the puck in the net. All three lines are capable of lighting the lamp with Ali Slinden leading the way with 19 goals and 10 assists.

River Falls lost that game to Williams, 2-1. They’ve also lost games to Wis.-Stevens Point, St. Thomas, and Gustavus Adolphus. However, down the stretch, they’ve gone 10-0-2, including winning their last eight games where they averaged over four goals a game.

Despite what appears to be the underdog of the tournament, winning the NCHA and getting by the MIAC champion is nothing to sneeze at. Any team that takes the Falcons lightly, could be in for a rude awakening. River Falls is playing their best hockey right now.

Having to play Elmira is difficult enough, but doing so when they host the tournament compounds the problem. Cranston, however, is not concerned.

“We practiced for three weeks for our game against St. Thomas,” he said. “I think we’ve had enough of them [big games] that we are approaching these games as just two more big games.”

Which just happen to be two of the biggest games in River Falls’ young program history.

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