Brian McCloskey has finally got it his own way.
In his fifth year at the helm of the New Hampshire women’s hockey program, his first recruiting class is now the team’s senior core. Since he left his post as men’s assistant coach to inherit a struggling program, his tenure has been marked by a steady rise in continuity and achievement, capped by last season’s Frozen Four appearance. A runner-up national Coach of the Year in 2003 and 2006, he has gone 104-27-23 in four seasons at UNH
As any coach knows, you live and die by your own choices.
“The biggest thing is that when you have all of your own players, they’ve been with you for more than two years — there is continuity that is carried over from one season to the next season,” he said. “When I walked in four years ago, the program was fairly talented. It was an older team. The younger classes were thin.”
This past weekend the power of the No. 2 Wildcats became clear as they finally beat their old nemesis Minnesota for the first time in eight attempts. Prior to Saturday’s overtime 6-5 win in the second night of the Easton Shootout, hosted by the Golden Gophers, UNH was 0-6-1 against Minnesota, including last season’s 5-4 loss in the NCAA semifinals.
“In some ways, it was a carbon copy of our Frozen Four game,” McCloskey said, in that the lead constantly changed hands. “We came out slow and tight and they put a lot of pressure on us in the first period.” The Wildcats trailed 2-1 and were outshot 18-2 before the first intermission.
During the break, McCloskey told his team to weather the storm. By the second period, despite another Golden Gopher goal, the coach said he could feel the momentum shift as the game wore on. “There was a lot of ebb and flow … but I thought our kids started to take over,” he said. “We learned from our experience last year … our kids don’t panic They’re a confident group.”
Given the balance of experience and talent on their roster, UNH is well-positioned for another Frozen Four run. Only three players graduated from last season’s school record 33-3-1 season. The Wildcats led the nation in a number of offensive and defensive categories, and the players who carried them to those heights are back.
In goal there’s plenty of experience with senior Melissa Bourdon, who has been the regular starter in all of her years. She is backed up by another senior. Brittany Busa. Bourdon led the nation in wins and winning percentage (.891) and broke the NCAA record for lowest GAA among regular starters in a single season (1.18). She shattered school records for consecutive shutouts (5) and consecutive shut out minutes (341:49).
Friday against Bemidji State in the first round of the Easton Shootout, McCloskey started freshman Lucy Schoedel posted a shutout in a 7-0 victory. McCloskey said it was good for both Bourdon and Schoedel to have some competition in net. Bourdon was in net the entire game against Minnesota.
Up front the Wildcats return the nation’s top-scoring line in tact. Junior forward Jennifer Hitchcock led the nation last year in scoring per game with a 1.78 average. Junior Sadie Wright-Ward, the reigning Hockey East Player of the Year, was fourth with a 1.65 average. Hockey East Rookie of the Year Sam Faber was sixth (1.38), and she has already been named Hockey East Player of the Week twice this season. Adding to the forward depth is senior Nicole Hekle, who made the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award Final 10 and was named best defensive forward by USCHO.
“We’re a fairly balanced high-scoring team,” he said, with only one forward lost from last year. “Offensive balance will be on of our biggest strengths. We can play three or four lines.”
The Wildcats also led the nation in defense, holding opponents to an average 1.14 goals per game. All-American junior defenseman Martine Garland, who keyed the defense in her return from a redshirt season, is back in a leadership role this season. Garland scored the overtime game winner in the Minnesota victory, and finished with four points on two goals and two assists. Sophomore Kacey Bellamy, already an USCHO Defensive Player of the Week selection, joins Garland on the top power play unit. They are surrounded by a string of solid, if less recognized players, in Nicole Goguen, Diana Saly, both juniors, and sophomore Maggie Joyce.
Despite the strength of the team this season, McCloskey is realistic about the chances of returning to the Final Four. The return of the Olympians will make some teams stronger and the 2006 elite teams are even better this year.
McCloskey said four years ago “you could drive a trailer” through the chasm between the top four teams and five through 12. He remembers losing to Harvard 7-1, but that wasn’t the worst of it. They were outshot 50-3. At the time Harvard was loaded with Olympians Jennifer Botterill, Julie Chu and Angela Ruggerio.
McCloskey was on the losing end in his team’s first three meetings against Harvard, but UNH has since beaten Harvard four straight times, including an NCAA quarterfinal.
Although returning Olympians may not make the difference they did back in 2002, McCloskey said they are still the top-end players. Dartmouth’s Katie Weatherston, Gillian Apps and Cherie Piper, all members of the Canadian Gold Medal winning team, and Harvard’s Chu, who played for the U.S., will make a difference to their college squads, he said.
But once you remove the small, elite group, the middle talent pool is deeper than ever, he said, echoing what a number of other coaches have pointed out.
“The depth among the top 10 teams is by far the greatest it has ever been in the women’s side,” he said. “We expect to be in the Frozen Four but getting back is going to prove to be more difficult than last year. We all have a lot of mutual and healthy respect for our opponents.”