The feeling of winning the inaugural Women’s Hockey East championship for the Providence Friars was hard for the players and coaches to articulate a year ago.
So, too, then was the feeling of having a 7-11-2 record at the end of January with the heart of the league schedule ahead and an offense that simply wasn’t scoring.
At that point, head coach Bob Deraney did something few in the college game could do. He put his ego aside and listened to the players.
“I met with all the players individually and asked them one question that had three parts: how did we get here, where are we and how are we going to get to where we want to go?” said Deraney. “I just listened and then after that I came up with a different type of system.”
The result was a major change to the Friars’ offense. Having won a championship with a two-three set popular in women’s hockey in which the left wing acts more as a defenseman than a forward, the Friars continued that through the struggle of the early season.
The problem in that was that some of the team’s top players this year were at forward, and asking them to commit to defense was problematic to the Friars’ offense.
“We were playing a system where we were getting a tremendous number of shots and I was enamored by the number of shots we were getting figuring things eventually would come our way,” said Deraney. “When I looked back at the shot charts, our skilled players weren’t the ones getting the shots. My job is to try to put more talent on the ice. So we changed the system and tried to put players in positions to be more successful.”
The end product was a two-one-two forecheck conventional to the men’s game that allowed more offensive pressure from Deraney’s skilled forwards.
That change produced a 14-2 record from February on, the most important of which was Sunday’s 3-0 victory over top-seeded New Hampshire to capture back-to-back Women’s Hockey East championships for the Friars.
And before you call Deraney a genius to be able to change on the fly, he’s quick to deflect attention away from himself.
“The kids always chose to look forward and not look back,” said Deraney. “It’s the coach doing a better job of coaching, simple as that. I didn’t do a good job in the beginning, but they always had faith in me.
“We’re a team in this from the coaches to the players and from the players back down [to the coaches. I’d be stupid not to get their input.”
Captain Sarah Youlen agrees wholeheartedly.
“We worked together as a unit — the captains, the seniors, the coaches — and [changed the system],” said Youlen, a senior who was part of Deraney’s first recruiting class at Providence five years ago. “It’s a plus that we can go in and talk to [Deraney]. That helps a lot.”
Having the luxury of a solid player-coach relationship is something that Youlen admits that she’ll miss.
“It’s sad. I’m really sad that I’m done playing here,” said Youlen. “I had such a great time playing here and wouldn’t change anything for the world.”
The fact that the Friars’ season is complete might even be a little tougher to swallow. The current NCAA system that invites only four teams to the women’s tournament doesn’t allow for automatic bids to the conference tournament winner that are customary on the men’s side.
According to Deraney and his players, though, they understand and accept that fact.
“We’re used to it,” said Youlen, who has been part of three consecutive championship Friar teams (two Hockey East, one ECAC) that have not been invited to the tournament. “Last year we missed it by a spot and this year we’re not [even considered]. It stinks but you kind of get used to it.”
“With four teams [in the NCAA tournament] this is almost like college football,” said Deraney. “You almost have to have the perfect year.
“Our early trouble was my fault. If the coach could’ve figured out the system earlier, maybe we could have the bid.”
Still, bid or not, Deraney’s club has plenty to be proud of, and more importantly, they once again have back that feeling: the feeling of being a champion.