Last week, I covered teams six through ten in my pre-season rankings. This week, I list my preseason top five and reveal the team with the best shot to take home the NCAA title.
5. Manhattanville Valiants
In back-to-back seasons, the Valiants’ NCAA runs have ended with one-goal quarterfinal losses in Middlebury, Vt. This season, with a young but experienced squad, they hope to end their slump and get back to the D-III Frozen Four.
The backbone of this season’s Valiants team will be their goaltending. Both goalies, junior Liane Ortis and sophomore Karine Turmel, return between the pipes. Manhattanville coach Nicole Hall also brought in freshman goalie Sophia Kokkonis, who she anticipates will see playing time this season. With three goalies expected to see time between the pipes, there should not be a fatigue factor for any of them.
One part of the team hit heavily this off-season was the forwards. Led by Second Team All-American Amanda Nonis, Jessica Zimmerman, and Alex Blackwell, the Valiants hope to overcome the loss of point producers Jessica Temesy, Jami Grasby, and Ashley Trimble to graduation. The Valiants will also need to replace forward Danielle Nagymarosi who transferred to RIT this year.
Something unique about this edition of the Valiants is that not one member on the roster is a senior. They are very young, but having won the ECAC East title for the past five seasons, the experience is not lacking. They have proven that they know how to win their conference. What they have left to do is put together a run long enough to be crowned NCAA Champions.
4. Wisconsin-Superior Yellow Jackets
The first experience in the NCAA Tournament was short and not so sweet for the Yellow Jackets. After making the playoff field for the very first time, they were defeated by Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the NCAA Quarterfinals.
This season, with First Team All-American’s Erin Kegley and Rikki Nespor returning, along with the nucleus of last season’s squad, a trip to the Frozen Four looks promising.
The Yellow Jackets have a nice mix of veterans and youth. Coach Dan Laughlin has brought in nine freshmen this season, and with the experience and leadership of his seven seniors, the freshmen should contribute right away.
Offensively, the Yellow Jackets shouldn’t miss a beat. They return their top eight point producers from last season, a year in which they averaged 5.25 goals per game. Key contributors to the offense will be Kegley, senior Ashley Jenkins, and sophomores Jamie McClintock and Alicia Cowieson.
On defense, with Nespor in goal, opposing teams should struggle to light up the scoreboard. They will have to overcome the loss of defensemen Tara Evoy and Nadine Aubin, but Laughlin has added four new faces to the blue line hoping to fill the void left by the graduating seniors.
With a well balanced roster of veterans and freshmen, this could be the year the Yellow Jackets take home the NCHA crown and go deep into NCAAs. They will face tough tests along the way however, starting with this weekend’s match-up with Elmira College in the Earlybird Tournament in Flint, Mich.
3. Gustavus Adolphus Golden Gusties
For two straight seasons, the Golden Gusties have found themselves playing in the third-place game on Frozen Four weekend. Coach Mike Carroll hopes that the results will end up a little differently this season.
If there is a season for that to happen, this may be it. Virtually their entire roster from last season is returning, except defenseman Abby Randall, who graduated in the spring.
First Team All-American Andrea Peterson returns to give the Golden Gusties a scoring threat from the blue line. Last season, Peterson ranked second in the nation in points, tops among all defensemen. Senior Kelly Crandall, coming of her 47 point season, is the top returning forward.
Although it is hard for a team to lose when averaging over five goals per game, Carroll would like to see his team think more defensively this season.
“I would like to see our team think defense first and offense second more often this season,” said Carroll. “Last season I think we thought about offense too much sometimes. Our team defense has to improve.”
To help that defense, the Golden Gusties bring back starting goalies Kitty Hurley and Amanda Rosequist, who both saw playing time last season.
With a veteran filled lineup nearly identical to last season, expect the Golden Gusties to make a run into March, and if their defense gets even better, this may be the year the title goes to the West.
2. Plattsburgh State Cardinals
Coming off their most successful season in the program’s history, the Cardinals bring back nearly everyone that brought them to the National Championship game last March.
Centered around First Team All-American goaltender Breanne Doyle, the Cardinal’s defense held opponents to 1.23 goals per game last season, good enough for second best in the country. Also returning to the blue line is ECAC West First Team All-Conference award winner Julie Devereux. Devereux, along with her fellow returning blueliners, looks to continue frustrating opposing offenses.
Offensively they return Second Team All-American Danielle Blanchard and senior veteran Jessica Moreau, who combined for 73 points last season. Missing on the ice this year will be First Team All-American Jenn Clarke who ended her career ranked second among Plattsburgh State’s all-time point leaders. With the depth Plattsburgh has, coach Kevin Houle is looking for a full team effort to fill the void left by Clarke, rather then rely on one or two individuals.
With only two seniors, Moreau and Doyle, the Cardinals have plenty of youth and experience for the future. Six freshmen join the team, who are expected to be playing deep into March.
“We are happy with our freshmen at this stage of the pre-season,” said Houle. While he admits it is too early to tell who will contribute immediately, freshmen Laurie Bowler and Leslie Ann Mitchell should provide the Cardinals with some offensive help.
1. Middlebury Panthers
Three-time defending National Champion. Is there anything else that needs to be said?
If you are a fan of any of the other 44 Division III women’s hockey teams out there, here are two reasons why the Panthers might not repeat.
1. National Player of the Year and two-time First Team All-American, Emily Quizon.
2. Second Team All-American and standout goaltender Kate Kogut.
The loss of these two players leaves two giant holes for Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo to fill. However, as history indicates, he likely will find a way to do so.
Don’t feel bad for the Panthers. They return all but four players from last year’s roster, including Quizon and Kogut. Two of those players are Second Team All-American forward Annmarie Cellino, who led the Panthers in points last season, and Second Team All-American defenseman Shannon Tarrant, who helped the Panthers finish as the nation’s third best defensive team.
Offensively, expect Cellino, Shannon Sylvester, and Abby Kurtz-Phelan to lead the Panther attack. Combined, the three racked up 52 goals, 51 assists, for 103 points. Averaging 4.38 goals per game last season, the Panther’s will not have trouble finding the back of the net.
If there is one area of concern it may be in goal. The loss of Kogut and the lack of an experienced starter could pose problems for the Panthers early in the season. However, with the talent Middlebury routinely recruits don’t expect it to be an issue when the calendar flips to March.