With the end of January upon us, the beginning of February signals the start of the home stretch run in Division III womenâ€™s hockey. For teams like Elmira, Amherst, Trinity, Superior, RIT, and St. Thomas itâ€™s time to make their best pitch for an NCAA tournament bid if they fail to win an automatic bid.
Middlebury (holds tie-breaker over Amherst with a better overall record), Plattsburgh, Manhattanville, and Gustavus Adolphus control their own destiny right now and are in the best position to win their respective conference titles. Middlebury is also in the driverâ€™s seat to be the host of the Frozen Four. However, they still have challenging games remaining against Amherst and Plattsburgh as well as playing six of their final nine games away from the friendly confines of the Kenyon Ice Arena.
Going along with the NCAA tournament outlook, lets dip a little bit into the race for the 2008 Laura Hurd Award, given to the top Division III womenâ€™s player as voted on by the American Hockey Coaches Association.
This season presents us with a very intriguing dilemma. Traditionally, the award has been given to a senior and seemingly rewarding a career rather than a single season. This year, there is just one senior in the top 10 nationally for scoring in Superiorâ€™s Stacy Anderson (15-12-27).
Plattsburgh junior Danielle Blanchard leads the country in scoring (18-14-32) and is arguably the best player in all of Division III. Many thought Blanchard should have won the award last year, leading Plattsburgh to an undefeated season and a national championship while scoring 51 points.
Not to be outdone, Manhattanville junior Danielle Nagymarosi has started to pick up her play. Nagymarosi led the nation in scoring last season at RIT with 61 points. This year, she is leading the Valiantsâ€™ offense with 15 goals and 11 assists for 26 points. She also leads the country in game winning goals.
Out west, Nicole Grossmann has been Stevens Pointâ€™s go-to girl in the clutch with 17 goals and nine assists for 26 points. The junior forward is second to Blanchard in the nation in goals scored and is tied for the lead with Amherstâ€™s Tarasai Karega in power play goals with eight each.
The Superior Yellow Jackets (12-4-1) currently sit in sole possession of second place in the NCHA (7-2-1) and the chief challenger to Stevens Point and their undefeated season. However, this was nowhere near the case throughout most of the first half of the season and into the second half after the Jackets lost to River Falls 5-4 in overtime on Jan. 12.
Superior struggled through the first half of the season dropping games to Adrian, Stevens Point, and Gustavus Adolphus. The Jackets lacked a marquee win on their schedule up until this past weekend when Superior swept a hot River Falls team 4-0 and 3-2.
â€œWeâ€™re going well now,â€ said Superior head coach Dan Laughlin. â€œOur goal was to stay in the upper half of our conference and have a chance to compete in the post-season. We control our own destiny.â€
Laughlin attributed the Jacketsâ€™ slow start to being a young team and working through the growing process and the transition to D-III hockey.
â€œWe have a young team so the chemistry took awhile to develop,â€ Laughlin said. â€œWe couldnâ€™t expect miracles right away. The girls have been working hard though and weâ€™re coming together at the right time for the stretch run.â€
As part of the growing process, two of Superiorâ€™s young star scorers — Shana Katz and Lindsey Legree — have been in the box a little bit more than youâ€™d like to see. Legree is second on the team in scoring, but leads the team in penalty minutes with 34.
â€œWeâ€™ve been taking a few too many penalties but itâ€™s part of the transition to Division III,â€ Laughlin said. â€œThe game is called a little tighter here. The big problem is we have been taking penalties at the wrong time. Special teams are going to be huge for us.â€
Superior travels to winless Concordia (WI) and Lake Forest this weekend before their looming showdown with Stevens Point next weekend at Wessman Arena.
â€œWe all know as a team that it doesnâ€™t matter who we play, every game is important,â€ Laughlin said. â€œWeâ€™re going to focus on Concordia and our team and worry about Point when that comes.â€
Tribute to the Troops
On Tuesday, Feb. 5, the Norwich Cadets will host the inaugural â€œTribute To The Troopsâ€ night to recognize 45 current or former Norwich students serving our country in Iraq or Afghanistan. St. Michaelâ€™s College comes to the Kreitzberg Arena at 7 p.m. to take part in this historic event for Division III womenâ€™s hockey.
Heading the planning committee were Norwich head coach Mark Bolding and assistant coach Dana Bean.
â€œOur assistant coach Dana Bean has had the idea for awhile and now weâ€™re finally putting it into action,â€ Bolding said. â€œItâ€™s a natural fit for us being a military school and itâ€™s unique because we are the only womenâ€™s military school with a hockey team.â€
Bean and Bolding rather quickly gathered a list of 45 names of Norwich students and decided to make special commemorative jerseys for the team and the event that would list a name of a NU student currently serving overseas.
â€œWe worked with a company that was great with us and we were able to get a very heavy camouflage practice-like jersey with a ton of detail on it for $70 each,â€ Bolding said.
The event was made possible through a ton of help from other people as the St. Michaelâ€™s game was originally scheduled for a weekend.
â€œChris Donovan (St. Michaelâ€™s head coach) is a Norwich graduate and he was more than willing to help us out,â€ Bolding said. â€œAlso, Tuesday is one of the few nights we could get radio coverage from WDEVâ€™s George Commo. Weâ€™re going to have our color guard there to present the colors and weâ€™re hoping to draw between 600 and 800 fans or more to the event.â€
After the game, the jerseys will be packaged up and sent overseas to their respective alumsâ€™ name on the back.
Events like these are great for the sport of Division III womenâ€™s hockey and my hat is off to the Norwich coaching staff and everyone else that had a part in the planning of this event.
Speaking of the Cadets, Norwich and Mark Bolding are in their first Division III season after being a club team for at least five years before.
So far, the Cadets have had mixed results in their inaugural season of NCAA play. Currently, Norwich sits at 6-7-2 overall on the season and in ninth place in the ECAC East with a 3-5-2 record in conference play.
â€œWeâ€™re not doing too bad,â€ Bolding said. â€œWeâ€™ve been sitting around .500 all year. Weâ€™ve been a little inconsistent but we donâ€™t have a lot of depth so itâ€™s not been unexpected.â€
The Norwich University name is well known in the college hockey world as the menâ€™s team is constantly a national title contender year in and year out behind legendary coach Mike McShane. With such a successful menâ€™s program itâ€™d be expected that the womenâ€™s program would have a little extra pressure to perform well because of the precedent the menâ€™s team has set.
â€œWe definitely feel a little bit of pressure, especially when weâ€™re out recruiting,â€ Bolding said. â€œRecruits know Norwich has a very good reputation and having a successful menâ€™s team reminds we have to keep doing our job. It keeps us going and trying to go the extra mile to get better.â€
Because of the previous club hockey years, Norwich has an untraditional number of upperclassmen for a first year hockey team. Just half of the team is freshmen and the rest are upperclassmen brought over from the club hockey team.
â€œWe still do have a lot of freshmen but we also have a lot of players from our club hockey team last year,â€ Bolding said. â€œEveryone works hard in practice to get better and thatâ€™s always great to see.â€
However, hands down, junior all-everything captain Sophie LeClerc leads the Cadets.
â€œSophie (LeClerc) is consistent,â€ Bolding said. â€œShe plays great defense and can score. She never quits and brings everybody elseâ€™s game up around her. Sheâ€™s also a local kid from Vermont and many of the young kids look up to her at clinics.â€
The Cadets have the ability to finish off their first collegiate season very strong as just two of their remaining nine games come against teams with a winning record.
With one season under their belt, a strong hockey tradition, and class events like Tribute for the Troops nights, the future is certainly bright in Northfield, Vt., for not just one hockey team, but two.