For the first time in the eight year history of the NCAA Women’s Division III Tournament, only one team will be returning from last year’s Championship weekend. Elmira is the lone team from last year’s tournament in Plattsburgh that will be heading to Middlebury this weekend for the fight for No. 1. Joining Elmira will be host, Middlebury as well as Amherst and Wis. River Falls.
Both Middlebury and Elmira will be making their fifth trip to the NCAA Semi-finals, and be looking for their fourth and third national championships respectively. Amherst and River Falls are making their second appearances in the NCAA Semi’s and will both be looking for the first national titles in their respective program’s history.
How They Got Here
Middlebury (19-3-4) received the top overall seed in the tournament as well as hosting rights and a first round bye. The Panthers were vaulted to the top of the NCAA rankings after defeating Amherst in the NESCAC finals. That combined with Plattsburgh and RIT losing in the ECAC West Tournament, sent this weekend’s action back to Vermont for the first time in five years.
Amherst (22-5-0) stopped Plattsburgh’s three-peat hopes on Saturday with a 4-1 win over the two-time defending national champion Cardinals. The Lady Jeffs were able to withstand Plattsburgh’s pressure in the first period and then score four unanswered goals in the second period. Plattsburgh had three power play opportunities in the first period. However, Krystyn Elek and the Amherst defense were up to the task and shut down the Cardinal’s power play.
Amherst’s Courtney Hanlon got the Lady Jeffs rolling at 9:16 of the second period. Hanlon’s team leading 18th goal came on the power play after Steph Moon took a body-checking penalty for Plattsburgh.
Emily Vitale added what would turn out to be the game-winning goal less than two minutes later for Amherst. Jodie Fisher and Kate Dennett rounded out the Amherst scoring with two more goals in the last six minutes of the second period.
Plattsburgh did their best to rally in the third period generating 15 shots and yielding only three to Amherst but they were only able to put one goal past Elek. Erika Schaubel tallied the lone marker of the game for Plattsburgh on the power play. However the defending champions were never able to mount anything more.
“We played well against them in the regular season but we couldn’t finish in that game,” said Amherst head coach Jim Plumer. “In Saturday’s game we finished and killed off penalties. We defended their power play much better and made the most of our chances.”
Elmira (23-4-1) got everything they could handle from the ECAC East champion, Norwich. The Soaring Eagles were able to escape with a 3-2 win but it was not without heavy resistance from the Cadets. After a back and forth battle in the first period, Elmira’s Kayla Coady lit the lamp with her 17th goal of the season and gave the Soaring Eagles a 1-0 lead heading into the intermission.
Coady quickly added her second goal of the game a little over a minute into the second period. Coady streaked in from the left side of the ice and was initially stopped by Norwich goalie, Cindy Fortin. However, a Norwich defender deflected the lose rebound into the net while trying to clear it out of the crease to give Elmira a 2-0 lead.
Norwich’s freshman blue-liner Amanda Wilks cut the Elmira deficit to 2-1 on a fluke goal that deflected off of Allison Cubberley’s shoulder and into the back of the net. Elmira’s Catherine Shears answered late in the period with her third goal of the season to give the Soaring Eagle a 3-1 lead heading into the second intermission.
Norwich cut the deficit to one again less than two minutes into the third period when the red-hot Brittane Michaud tallied her fifth goal in her last three games to make it 3-2. However, that’s as close as Norwich would get. A tremendous effort from junior forward Sophie Leclerc would go for not as the Soaring Eagles escaped with a win and a birth in the Frozen Four.
“The game played out exactly the way I thought it was going to,” said Elmira head coach Greg Fargo. “I don’t think we could have prepared any better and it’s just one of those mental things because we didn’t play our best game. Norwich came out playing with a lot of energy and it was an up and down game. They had us on our heels at parts and we weren’t as crisp as we were the weekend before.”
In arguably the biggest upset of the Quarterfinal round, Wis. River Falls (20-5-3) downed top-ranked Gustavus Adolphus from the last USCHO.com poll 2-1. The Falcons win snapped Gustavus Adolphus’ 26-game unbeaten streak and handed the Gusties their first loss since the first game of the season against Adrian.
River Falls’ Stefanie Schmitz opened up the scoring 20 seconds into the second period with her 14th goal of the season. Gustavus Adolphus’ Lynn Hillen answered 12 minutes later with her seventh goal of the season. The two sides battled through the rest of the second period and remained knotted at one heading into the third period.
Kaleigh Bell proved to be the hero for the River Falls at 11:30 of the third period with her seventh goal of the season on the power play. Gustavus Adolphus wasn’t able to push across the game-tying goal and for the third straight season, the Gusties fell in the Quarterfinals at home after being the top overall seed in the West.
“We have a really young team and we made a lot of mistakes early in the season,” said River Falls head coach Joe Cranston. “We battled hard to win the conference and I think our tough schedule at the beginning of the year helped prepare us for this playoff run.
“We came into the Gustavus game with a game plan knowing we were going to get out shot and they were going to possess the puck more. Everything went exactly to game plan. We had 20 shots and for the most part they were quality while Gustavus had 36 and most of them came from the perimeter. They were shooting out of desperation.”
Elmira vs. River Falls
The Elmira College Soaring Eagles and River Falls Falcons will meet for second time ever on Friday afternoon in the first semifinal. The only other meeting between the two schools took place in 2003 at the D-III Championships in Elmira. The Soaring Eagles downed the Falcons 2-1 on the way to their second consecutive national championship.
Only one person between both teams is still around for this year’s Frozen Four meeting and that is River Falls’ head coach Joe Cranston. Cranston is in his 10th season at the helm of the Falcon program. He has compiled a 150-94-20 record in those 10 seasons with three NCHA Tournament championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“I think the biggest difference between this year’s team and the 2003 team is the mental aspect,” Cranston said. “In 2003, we had a lot of the just happy to here mentality. We don’t have any of that this year. We were picked to finish third in the conference and since day one the team has battled hard in practice and games to get to this point.”
River Falls has indeed had to battle to get to where they are. The Falcons were the survivors of the brutal NCHA this season where Stevens Point, Superior, Eau Claire, Lake Forest, and River Falls beat up on each other all season. In January, River Falls hit a brutal 17-day stretch where they played seven games and compiled a 2-4-1 record. Since then however, River Falls has hit their stride as they are the hottest team coming into the tournament with an 11-game unbeaten streak.
“We played a tough schedule early in the season and in January,” Cranston said. “With the team being so young we had a lot of kids who were trying to make the adjustment from high school to college with the size, speed, and strength the college game is played at. When it got to February and March though the team knew what they had to do and they really wanted it. I think the biggest reason for our win streak is that our team has wanted it more than the teams we’ve been playing.”
The Falcons do not have the traditional 18 skaters. Instead, Cranston uses three lines of forwards and six defensemen.
“We don’t have any superstars on our team,” Cranston said. “We have three solid lines that we can put out there and I have confidence in to do well. We have a go-to line of Schmitz, Thompson, and Sunderman that can shut down other team’s top players and still put up offensive production.”
In goal, sophomore Cassi Campbell is one of the best in Division III. Campbell has compiled a 13-2-2 record on the season and a 1.83 goals against average with a save percentage of .934.
“Cassi is a presence out there on the ice,” Cranston said. “I think it’s deflating for other teams to know that once you get by our five other skaters they still have to beat Cassi.”
Elmira returns to the NCAA Semi’s this season under the helm of first year head coach Greg Fargo. Fargo returned to his old stomping grounds to take over the position vacated by Paul Nemetz-Carlson at the end of last season. Fargo is the third coach in the program’s history following in the footsteps of Jamie Wood and Nemetz-Carlson.
“It’s great that we’re headed back to the Frozen Four,” Fargo said. “It’s something we have wanted to achieve since day one. I was handed a great team when I took over but our goal is not just to make it there, we want to win. Anything other than two wins is going to be a disappointment from our perspective.”
Many people would not have predicted two weeks ago that Elmira would be the last ECAC West team remaining in the NCAA Playoffs. Two weeks ago, Elmira was faced with a win or go home situation in the ECAC West Tournament. Although the Soaring Eagles hosted the tournament and won the regular season, their out of conference losses had dropped them to the bottom of the totem poll behind R.I.T. and Plattsburgh. Elmira defeated Neumann and then played one of their finest games of the season to defeat Plattsburgh 3-0 in the ECAC West championship and earn the automatic bid.
The Soaring Eagles have won their last five games and 14 of their last 15. A big reason for the hot-streak has been the outstanding play of senior goaltender Allison Cubberley. She is 20-4-1 on the season with a 1.23 goals against average and a .947 save percentage.
“Allison (Cubberley) has stepped her game up tremendously in the past month,” Fargo said. “She’s been a warrior in net and is not giving up many second chance opportunities. She has quietly gone about her business and is having a spectacular season.”
Elmira is 3-1 in national semi-final games and will be looking to get back to their first national title game since 2005.
“We’re concentrating on playing our best and trying to play the way we did against Plattsburgh in the ECAC West finals,” Fargo said. “If we do that, we’ll be really tough to beat this weekend. We’ve done all that we can up to this point and now we are just working on feeling good and confident about our special teams and systems.”
Amherst vs. Middlebury
It’s fitting that Amherst and Middlebury will get one last chance to settle the score between the two NESCAC rivals as the two teams will meet for the fourth time on Friday night at the Kenyon Ice Arena. Amherst won the first two meetings in the regular season by scores of 3-0 and 5-0. However, Middlebury won the most important meeting to date in the NESCAC Championship, downing the Lady Jeffs 4-3.
“I feel like we played the best in the game we lost rather than in the games we won,” Plumer said. “We wanted to win the conference, we left it all out on the ice but came up short. Middlebury is the gold standard in women’s D-III hockey and I think we’ve developed quite a great rivalry with them lately.”
On Friday night both teams will be looking to get the last laugh and advance to the National Championship game. Middlebury has never lost in the semifinals as they are a perfect 4-0 and will be looking to make their fifth title game. Amherst will be looking to advance to their first title game and end Middlebury’s streak.
“We enjoy playing them,” Plumer said. “It’s a different game at their rink on the big ice. We like playing there and it’s fun to play there. Both teams have goalies capable of stealing games. It’s going to come down to who executes better on their opportunities more.”
Amherst has the unique set-up where they could win their first national championship while knocking off the only three programs to win the seven NCAA sanctioned championships.
To do so, the Lady Jeffs will be looking to two key players to lead them. Sophomore forward Courtney Hanlon leads the team with 18 goals and 14 assists for 32 points on the season. Hanlon is the only player on the team with more than 10 goals.
“Courtney (Hanlon) has great hands and can create where there isn’t a lot of space,” Plumer. “She’s a playmaker more than anything. We’ve had an offense by committee this season and made it difficult for other teams to defend. We just settled on lines only about a month ago.”
Krystyn Elek has been the backbone of the Amherst defense this season and was named NESCAC Player of the Year while recording a 14-3-0 record, 1.27 goals against average and a .949 save percentage. Elek did not play in the NESCAC Championship due to being sick but she’ll be back for Friday night’s game.
The Middlebury Panthers come into Friday’s showdown with Amherst having not played a game since March 9. The Panthers will have the luxury of hosting the tournament on their spacious ice sheet of 200×95, just five feet wide short of being an Olympic sized ice sheet. However, Middlebury also will have to deal with the long layoff hangover as well as some other distractions that other teams don’t have to worry about.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be hosting the Frozen Four at our home rink in front of our home fans and be able to be in our locker room,” Mandigo said. “The girls are going to be in classes on Friday so we’ll have to deal with some of those distractions.”
Mandigo said that he thinks people might be giving too much credit to the large ice sheet and how it might be a huge factor for Middlebury.
“Amherst is very fast and they might be better off playing here than they would be at their own rink. They are solid in all facets of the game with a great goaltender as well as in my opinion the best set of six defensemen that I have seen in my 21 years coaching here. They are quick and smart with the puck and they have a lot of forwards that battle and don’t back down. They’re an excellent team and very well coached and they’ll be competitive.”
Mandigo said that the biggest difference between the regular season games and the NESCAC Championship was Middlebury’s desire to compete.
“Amherst played very well but we were able to capitalize on our special teams and we competed for the fill 60 minutes and into overtime. We played hard in overtime and battled all over the ice and never stopped.”
One important key to the game for Middlebury will be the play of their penalty kill. The Panthers rarely take penalties, 8.7 minutes a game; only three teams were penalized less. However, when they do take penalties, the penalty kill has not been up to par this year for Middlebury standards at just 83.3 percent for 30th in the nation.
“Our penalty kill is the worst it has ever been,” Mandigo said. “We’ve done the poorest job of killing penalties this season since I’ve been here and I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s a big concern and we have to hope we’ll do a good job this weekend or it could definitely hurt us.”