The Champs are Back in Town
Itâ€™s been a long seven-and-a-half-month wait for Jim Plumer and the Amherst Lady Jeffs after winning last yearâ€™s NCAA championship in thrilling fashion with a 4-3 overtime victory over Elmira. However, this Saturday the wait is finally over as the Lady Jeffs hit the ice for the first time in the 2009-2010 season with a pair of NESCAC league games against Wesleyan.
Due to league rules, the NESCAC teams have been unable to start play until this weekend. However this year, the NESCAC isnâ€™t at quite as big of disadvantage because of the NCAA implementing the Oct. 15 flat start date for D-III hockey schools this season. In previous years, some schools would have played close to 10 games by the time the NESCAC schools played their first.
Amherst returns as the number-one-ranked team in the latest USCHO.com poll as the Lady Jeffs garnered 13 first-place votes to easily out-distance second-ranked Elmira.
While the Lady Jeffs will be starting the season at number one, they did lose a solid group of five players that were instrumental in turning the Amherst program from a laughingstock into a perennial national powerhouse. Gone are dynamic forwards Tarasai Karega, Lindsey Harrington, and Anna MacLean as well as two of the Jeffs biggest leaders on the defensive end in Julie Radziewicz and all-everything goaltender Krystyn Elek.
Although Elek was only a junior, she opted to forgo her senior season and focus on academics in her final year at Amherst.
â€œWeâ€™ve known that Krystyn wasnâ€™t planning on playing hockey this year since May,â€ Plumer said. â€œThe four seniors along with Krystyn made a huge impact on our program and really helped us turn the corner. They brought our program to another level and certainly left their legacy. However, weâ€™re ready to embrace the challenge of defending our title and I honestly think this year is the most focused group weâ€™ve had since Iâ€™ve been here. All the returning players realize the opportunities they have to fill holes and now will have a chance to shine after waiting in the wings.â€
This yearâ€™s Lady Jeff roster features 21 players, including 18 returners from last seasonâ€™s National Champions squad. Junior forward Courtney Hanlon returns as last yearâ€™s scoring leader with 19 goals and 14 assists. Seniors Kate Dennett and Michelle McGann tallied 25 and 19 points respectively to both rank in the top six for Amherst scorers last season. Sophomore Emily Vitale will also look to fill the void left by Karega and Harrington as she will look to improve upon her seven goals and 15 assists last season.
â€œWe return five of our six d-men from last season, which has really been the foundation of our team,â€ Plumer said. â€œWeâ€™re looking for big things out of Kristen Dier and Randi Zukas to lead that defense unit. Kate Dennett and Courtney Hanlon will play huge roles for us. Dennett will forever be defined as clutch after her performance in the National Championship game last year.â€
As far as newcomers this season, Plumer said he expects all three freshmen to make an impact for the Lady Jeffs this season.
â€œGeneva Lloyd is a freshman defenseman that has looked great in practice so far,â€ Plumer said. â€œSheâ€™s going to fit in perfectly with our mobile puck-moving defenseman style. Megan Doyen is a fast little forward that plays a lot like Lindsey Harrington and she took on Lindseyâ€™s number 24 too. Kaitlyn McInnis has been only with us on the ice a few times as she was finishing up the field hockey season. Sheâ€™s going to be a big strong power forward and a presence on the ice when she finally gets up to speed after missing a lot of ice time because of field hockey.â€
As far as the rest of the league goes, Plumer expects Amherst to face tough challenges from many of its NESCAC foes.
â€œEverybody has gotten better this year,â€ Plumer said. â€œMiddlebury has a great freshman class and they are going to be a lot better than they were last year and that was a team that made and hosted the Frozen Four. I think Bowdoin is ready to make a move back up to where they used to be and Hamilton could be a team to watch out for as they got a great freshman goalie coming in that will compliment an already very good offense.â€
First up for the Lady Jeffs on their title defense will be a trip to Middletown, Conn., to take on the Wesleyan Cardinals.
â€œThis year is going to be an interesting year as weâ€™re the odd team out and have no travel partner this year in the NESCAC,â€ Plumer said. â€œIt makes the season a lot different playing a team twice in a row instead of two games in two nights against different teams. Last year, Wesleyan played us as tough defensively as anybody. They have a new coach this year in Doug Mandigo (Middlebury head coach, Bill Mandigoâ€™s brother) so weâ€™re not really sure what to expect. Weâ€™re just really excited to finally play again.â€
Two Showdowns, Two Regions
Not to get lost in the fact that the NESCAC teams will finally be hitting the ice this weekend, both the east and west regions have two terrific two-game series on tap this weekend. In the east, Plattsburgh and Elmira renew their rivalry with just a combined five games between the two teams this season. This is the earliest in the season these two bitter rivals have met since 2001 when the Soaring Eagles and Cardinals split a two game series.
In the west, Wisconsin-Superior travels to defending NCHA champion and Oâ€™Brien Cup winner Wisconsin-River Falls for a pivotal early season showdown for both schools. The Yellowjackets are coming off a big upset win over third-ranked Gustavus Adolphus. River Falls returns all of last yearâ€™s squad that made it all the way to the final four before bowing out to Elmira in the national semifinals.
Elmira and Plattsburgh have both now completed two full four year cycles and after Elmira got the upper hand on the Cardinals in the first four years, sweeping all four ECAC West Tournament crowns as well as two national titles. The Cardinals rebounded the second four years with two national titles of their own. The all-time series stands at 13-13-3.
Gone are the star names of past Soaring Eagle greats: Laura Hurd, Edith Racine, LeAnne Denman, Jackie Oâ€™Neil, Kayla Coady, Allison Cubberley, and Jamie Huntley. On the Plattsburgh side of things names such as Liz Gibson, Lynn Taylor, Carolyn Roy, Jenn Clarke, Erin Oâ€™Brien, Danielle Blanchard, Breanne Doyle, and Claire Oâ€™Connor.
Who will be the next batch of players to etch their names into the history books of this storied rivalry? More importantly, which way will the pendulum swing for the next four years? Weâ€™ll all get our first glimpse this weekend as the two teams collide at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena on Saturday and Sunday.