In any NCAA championship event, handling the pressure of the big stage is a major factor in determining the outcome. So it comes as no surprise that experience was a common topic of conversation in Wednesday’s pre-game press conferences at the Women’s Frozen Four in Duluth.
Harvard vs. Wisconsin
In some sense, the first semifinal is the biggest mismatch in terms of Frozen Four experience. Wisconsin is the two-time defending NCAA champion, while Harvard hasn’t played at this level since 2005 – the longest Frozen Four drought in a stacked semifinal field. But Harvard coach Katey Stone does not believe this puts her team at a disadvantage. She cited two reasons why her team would be able to handle the pressure—the team’s leadership and the overall looseness of the squad.
“A lot of people have asked me about the youth of our team—it’s a reason why we’re here,” Stone said. “They don’t think. They just play. Our dynamic is unbelievable. It has been in the past, but there’s definitely something special about this group no matter what happens this weekend. It’s probably one of the loosest groups we’ve had in a long time. I noticed that early in November. They just figure out a way to win games and hopefully that is what will happen this weekend. “
Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson suggested that Harvard’s freshmen added an element of uncertainty.
“It comes down to getting on the ice and executing and performing in the Frozen Four, and they have a number of freshmen who have been big contributors for their hockey clubs, how are they going to react on the big stage?” Johnson said. “As a coach, you don’t know that until you get the puck dropped and see how they do react. “
But Harvard captain Caitlin Cahow expects her team to be loose and upbeat. The variety of personalities and talents on the team are what create that atmosphere.
“We’ve got a hugely diverse group, which is fantastic for ice hockey teams because the season is so long, we spend so much time together, and If we didn’t have different personalities and interests, we’d be all over each other, and nothing would work,” Cahow said. “It’s easy for us to stay loose and unbeat, because no matter who scores, we’re going to be celebrating on the bench like we just won the Stanley Cup, so for us every second on the ice is fun for the whole group.”
In addition, Wisconsin’s epic 1-0 quadruple overtime win over Harvard last season could just as well have been a championship game, Cahow said.
Although this is Badger team may be two-time defending champions, it is younger than recent Badger Frozen Four squads with three seniors and seven freshmen. It will be on the seniors, like captain Emily Morris, to help ready the younger players.
“This year being a senior and knowing we’ve been in this position two ears previously, I still have those jitters in my stomach, but I know our freshmen and sophomores have the early ones I had, so I know now I can be more composed and give them the reassurance that this is just another hockey game,” Morris said.
New Hampshire vs. Minnesota-Duluth
The home crowd for UMD creates a different dynamic in the nightcap on Thursday. UNH knows full well what it is like to play the host in the Frozen Four, having fallen 5-4 at Minnesota in 2006.
“It’s going to be loud, and we’re just going to have stay in control of our emotions,” said UNH captain Martine Garland. “Most of the people haven’t played a single player on that team. There’s a lot of unknowns. A lot of it’s going to be adjusting quickly and using your first shift and learning as you go.
UNH coach Brian McCloskey believes the adversity his team faced in road games this season—coming back on the road and winning opening weekend against St. Lawrence, coming back and winning at Mercyhurst—will be good preparation for Thursday night. Garland believes her team will carry momentum from handling St. Lawrence 3-2 in overtime last weekend.
“That game against St. Lawrence more than anything was a huge confidence builder,” Garland said. “They whooped us lost year. Coming back twice and winning an overtime, that’s a unique experience for any athlete.”
Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller noted that her team is facing pressure it did not last season. When UMD reach the NCAA final in 2007 and fell to Wisconsin, there were no expectations. Now there is more pressure, but UMD also has more experience.
“There’s only one way to get experience, and that is to get experience, and that is exactly what we got last year, and I know we know what it’s going to take to get maybe one more step this year,” Miller said.
Like UNH, UMD boasts its fair share of come-from behind wins.
“We’re fortunate because we’ve had to overcome adversity in a lot of games,” Miller said. “This team knows how to persevere and get it done.”
Miller said UMD was tight in the first two periods in its NCAA quarterfinal win against Mercyhurst, but hopefully her team has learned its lesson. She said she hopes to take some of the pressure off the team with a meeting Wednesday night.
“My plan is to send them to bed very confident and relaxed and aware of their abilities and potential,” Miller said. “I didn’t feel pressure last year. The only pressure I felt was to get here. Now it should just be fun for us.”