Providence Enters Uncharted Territory

They say that déjà vu is the feeling that as something happens that you’ve been there before.

Sunday, that should’ve been the case for the Providence women’s hockey team that captured its third straight Women’s Hockey East championship, when it beat Connecticut, 3-1, at BU’s Walter Brown Arena.

But as familiar as things were for the Friars, this time they’re about to entered uncharted territory.

Unlike the way that other nine Providence championships have ended (the Friars won six ECAC championships before the formation of Hockey East three years ago and the first NCAA championship in 2001), this year’s Hockey East tournament victory awards the winner with an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, meaning that unlike past years, Providence now lives to see another day.

It’s a reward and a day that Providence coach Bob Deraney just hoped would eventually come. After his club won the ECAC title three years ago it came down to a committee vote whether or not the Friars would be selected. That year the Friars were left home.

But this past summer, when the NCAA decided to expand the women’s tournament to stay in step with the sport’s ever expanding national presence, Hockey East was one of three leagues to be awarded an automatic qualifier, giving the Friars something to shoot for from the day the pucks first dropped last October.

“I don’t think there’s a better group of young ladies that deserve this opportunity than the 20 ladies in our locker room,” said Providence coach Bob Deraney, whose team came from behind on Sunday after falling behind, 1-0, the first time that Providence has allowed a goal in its last four championship games. “I’m so happy for them.”

The indication that things are a bit different this time could be seen easily in Providence’s post-game celebration. What in the past has been an explosion of sticks and gloves flying in the air was more of a subdued group hug around all-tournament goaltender Amy Thomas.

Senior and tournament MVP Rush Zimmerman, who notched a hat trick in Saturday’s semifinal and set up the game-winning and insurance goals on Sunday, said that for her, she preferred to take in the moment rather than scream her head off, but that the on-ice party for the Friars might be a sign of good things to come.

“I think it was a little more tame because we realize that this is just another step in the process of making our way towards the national championship,” Zimmerman said. “We celebrated, but in the back of our heads were realized that we have another job to do.”

That job begins next weekend when Providence will travel to Minnesota for the NCAA quarterfinal game. At that point the level of competition will rise, but that’s nothing that bothers a player like Zimmerman.

“When I think about playing the top teams, they’ve got superstars on those teams. They’ve got Olympians on those teams,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t have that on our team.

“We don’t have one or two players who’ll take over the team. We have a full team. We have a group of 20 girls who play the game. I think that if you match us up against any opponents, and if we’re playing the game and have our heads on right, I’m completely confident that we can play against any team in the country.”

When the Friars are out on the ice playing next weekend they’ll be playing for more than just the game at hand. They’ll also be playing for the many Friar championship teams in the past, many of which in fact were composed of superstars or Olympians like Cammi Granato and Stephanie O’Sullivan, but never had a chance to battle for an NCAA title.

“That’s why we play everyday, for the people who’ve come before us,” said Deraney, in making an almost Johnny Pesky-Boston Red Sox-esque comparison. “Back then, there was nothing more. We’re the beneficiaries of all those who came before us. All those girls who had to practice from 12 to 2 at night when they wouldn’t turn all the lights on, but they kept coming back. That’s what our program is based on.”

“Those women paved the way for the team we have today,” said Zimmerman of past Friars that include a total of seven Olympians. “We couldn’t be where we are today without those women.

“One of the reasons I came to Providence College was because of the tradition and because of the caliber of athlete that has played there before. I was just thinking about that as we were stepping off the ice, how lucky we are to be able to do something these women haven’t been able to do and prove to them that they really did make a difference for our program. Hopefully we’ll make them proud in the NCAA.”

Deraney and his club are realistic that they’ll be underdogs in next weekend’s NCAA tournament. That’s a role with which this Providence team really has no experience. Not a single player on this team has ever as much as lost a post-season game.

Still, the Friars are prepared to envelop that role.

“You just keep playing as hard as you can until they tell you that you can’t play anymore,” said Deraney. “That’s the way we play.”

For once, there’s no suspense. There’s no hoping. There will be no broken hearts. When the pairings are announced for the NCAA tournament Providence will be there. No one is telling them they can’t play anymore.

Instead, as Deraney was accepting congratulations after the post-game press conference, one reporter said factually, “You’ve got some more to do.”

Deraney’s response was quick, simple and to the point: “You bet we do!”