With Selection Monday just three days away, there is still a lot of hockey left to be played this weekend to determine the final five spots for the 2009 NCAA Division III womenâ€™s hockey tournament. Out west, River Falls and Gustavus Adolphus have already punched their tickets to the big dance by winning their respective conference tournaments.
The NESCAC, ECAC East, and ECAC West tournaments will all conclude on Sunday, providing us three more automatic qualifiers. The NCAA committee will then have the task of trying to decide the next two best teams that will grab the two remaining Pool C at-large selections.
In the NESCAC, Middlebury and Amherst once again roll in as the heavy favorites to win the tournament. Amherst won the regular season crown and defeated Middlebury twice in the process. Last year, Middlebury was upset 3-2 in overtime in the semifinals on their home ice by Colby. The Panthers will get a chance at redemption this weekend as they face the same Colby team at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Middlebury cannot afford another semi-final slip-up this season or it could cost them a chance at the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Panthers were fortunate enough to still grab a Pool C bid, but their situation is a bit dicier this year and will be explained later in this column.
Amherst will be taking on Conn. College in the other semi-final. The Camels upset Trinity in the NESCAC Quarterfinals to move on to the conference final four weekend in Amherst, Mass.
Amherst has rebounded quite nicely after their tough Minnesota trip where they dropped both games to St. Thomas and Gustavus Adolphus. The Lady Jeffs also dropped games to ECAC West powers R.I.T. and Plattsburgh. However, since Amherstâ€™s 5-0 win over Middlebury on Feb. 14, the Lady Jeffs have been rolling.
They picked up a crucial non-conference win against Elmira on Feb. 18 that vaulted them back into the Pool C discussion and really hurt Elmiraâ€™s chances of an at-large bid in the process.
The Lady Jeffs were a perfect 16-0-0 in NESCAC play this season and will need two more wins this weekend to wrap-up a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament and a third consecutive NESCAC Tournament title.
In the ECAC East, Manhattanville is the heavy favorite on their home-ice, as well as the fact the Valiants have won all seven ECAC East championships. They are the only team to compete in all seven NCAA sanctioned D-III National Tournaments.
Manhattanville will face Salve Regina at 3 p.m. in the ECAC East semi-finals. The Valiants have handled the Seahawks fairly easily in their two previous meetings this season with Manhattanville coming out on top by 5-0 and 4-0 scores respectively.
Norwich and Southern Maine will meet in the second semi-final scheduled for a 7 p.m. faceoff. The Cadets and Huskies are both extremely young teams that will be relying on freshmen to carry a bulk of the work load in order to be successful. Norwichâ€™s freshmen trio of Julie Fortier, Amanda Wilks, and Melissa Rundlett will have to step-up and support Sophie Leclerc and Kelsey Cone for the Cadets.
Southern Maine has two bright young freshmen of their own that have been a major factor in the Huskiesâ€™ success this season. Southern Maine will look to Katie Paradis and Danielle Ward to try and help get them to their first ECAC East championship game in program history.
ECAC West Tournament Preview
Three of the top teams in the country will be converging on the Murray Athletic Center in Pine Valley, N.Y. this weekend for the 2009 ECAC West Tournament. This year, for the first time since 2005, Elmira will host the tournament. Plattsburgh has hosted the tournament the last three seasons, winning two playoff titles, before Elmira upset the Cardinals 1-0 last season.
Elmira (20-4-1 Overall, 16-1-1 ECAC West) is the top-seed for the tournament and will face Neumann (16-10-0 Overall, 12-6-0 ECAC West) at 12 p.m.
â€œOur goal all year long was to finish first,â€ said Elmira coach Greg Fargo. â€œI think the team that wins the ECAC West playoff title has to be considered the favorite to go all the way in the NCAA tournament. Itâ€™s great for us to have the first game and be in front of our home fans but at this point it doesnâ€™t mean much. All that matters is taking care of business.â€
Although the Soaring Eagles won the ECAC West regular season, the Soaring Eagles are in the worst shape out of all the Pool C contenders because of their two losses to Middlebury and loss to Amherst. With that being said, the Soaring Eagles are facing a must win this weekend or they will likely be left home come Mondayâ€™s selection show.
â€œWeâ€™re going to be playing desperate hockey,â€ Fargo said. â€œThe team is self-motivated to do well this weekend. We feel we are as good as anybody and now we need to go and prove it. Weâ€™re in our home rink but weâ€™ll still need to take it one game at a time and focus on Neumann.â€
Neumann will be looking to play the spoiler role this weekend and they are very capable of pulling off an upset if the cards fall right. Six of Neumannâ€™s 10 losses came to R.I.T., Plattsburgh, and Elmira. Two others came to Division I Sacred Heart and the others came to Williams and Trinity.
The Knights have won seven straight games. The win streak includes a 6-1 thrashing of Utica in the ECAC West Quarterfinals, giving them all the confidence in the world heading into the weekend. Neumann lost 5-1 and 2-1 in the two meetings against Elmira earlier in the season.
â€œItâ€™s going to be a battle against them (Neumann),â€ Fargo said. â€œWeâ€™re focused solely on them right now and have watched a lot of video on them this week. They are an up and coming, young team that have some dangerous forwards that can hurt you offensively if you give them time and space. Brunet is a solid goaltender that can steal a game.â€
Elmira is loaded up front with scoring power as leading candidate for the 2009 Laura Hurd Award and ECAC West Player of the Year; Kayla Coady will lead the Soaring Eagles into the Domes this weekend. Coady leads the nation with 47 points. However, the Soaring Eagles donâ€™t stop there as Jenna McCall (17-19-36), Jamie Huntley (17-18-35), Karen Colehour (11-15-26), Lauryn DePaul (16-3-19) are dangerous as well.
Fargo said to also keep an eye on junior forward Melanie Henshaw as well this weekend to be a sleeper that could possibly be key for Elmira.
â€œMelanie Henshaw has had a quiet season offensively for her standards,â€ Fargo said. â€œSheâ€™s been a big game type player for this team as she scored the lone goal in the ECAC West Finals last season. Iâ€™m hoping she can chip in with some timely scoring this weekend.â€
In the second semi-final, second-seeded R.I.T. (21-2-2 Overall, 15-2-1 ECAC West) will take on third-seed Plattsburgh (21-3-2 Overall, 15-3-0 ECAC West). The Tigers and Cardinals will re-new their growing rivalry and Saturdayâ€™s semi-final will provide the rubber match for the two sides after they split the season series one game each earlier in the year at the Frank Ritter Memorial Arena in Rochester, N.Y.
R.I.T. comes in arguably the hottest of the three favorites to win the ECAC West. The Tigers have won eight straight since falling to Plattsburgh 4-2 on Jan. 24. During that span, the Tigers vaulted themselves to the top of the Pool C pecking order by sweeping Middlebury and Amherst at home in early February.
In my opinion, R.I.T. is virtually a lock for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how they fare this weekend. Even if the Tigers fall in the semi-finals, their head to head wins against Amherst and Middlebury should to be enough to keep them ahead of both of them when it comes to Pool C comparisons.
If R.I.T. were to lose and Elmira went on to win the ECAC West, the conference could get three teams into the tournament depending on how Plattsburgh compares with Middlebury and Amherst. Right now, Plattsburgh is behind Amherst in the latest NCAA Rankings, which I donâ€™t quite understand since Plattsburgh won head to head against Amherst and their strength of schedules are basically a wash.
My guess is that Plattsburgh is being hurt drastically by their early season loss to Utica and thatâ€™s enough to keep Amherst ahead of the Cardinals. My editor, Matt Rennell has been a vital help in determining the un-official pair-wise rankings that take into account all of the NCAAâ€™s criteria.
My original goal was to include interviews with Plattsburgh coach Kevin Houle and R.I.T. coach Scott McDonald as well in this article. However, through no fault of theirs I was unable to get quotes from them at print time.