D-III Women’s Finals Preview

Four teams will converge on St. Peter, Minn. this weekend for the 2010 NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championships, hosted by Gustavus Adolphus at the Don Roberts Rink.

This marks the first time in the tournament’s nine year history that it will be held in the west after three finals have been held at Plattsburgh, three at Elmira, and two at Middlebury.

Last year, Amherst won a thrilling 4-3 overtime game against Elmira to claim its first national championship at the Chip Kenyon ’85 Arena in Middlebury, Vt.
Amherst and Elmira return to this year’s championship weekend with hopes of meeting in the finals again. Looking to spoil the rematch is MIAC powerhouse Gustavus Adolphus, who returns to the national semifinals for the first time since 2006, as well as the new kids on the block Norwich.

This year’s final four has the components to go down as one of the best in the short history of the NCAA sponsoring a D-III championship. You have the perennial powerhouse Elmira, making its sixth final four appearance. The defending champions Amherst, the Western power Gustavus Adolphus, and the newcomer Norwich.

How they got here

Amherst (21-2-4) defeated Trinity 2-1 in overtime in the NESCAC Championship to win its third conference tournament title in the last four years. The Lady Jeffs qualified for their fourth straight NCAA Tournament and are making their third final four appearance in the last four seasons.

Amherst earned the top seed and the first round bye – but was denied hosting rights – which normally go to the top seed. The NCAA awarded Gustavus Adolphus the hosting rights based on a rule put in place before the 2006-2007 that stated the tournament must go west once every four seasons. This is the fourth year of that rotation and the tournament had yet to be held in the west.

Amherst coach Jim Plumer said that Lady Jeffs had a target on their backs all season as the defending national champions; getting teams’ best games night in and night out. The NESCAC Tournament was no different as Amherst needed overtime to beat both Bowdoin and Trinity.

“I wasn’t surprised to see them come at us the way they did,” Plumer said. “The tournament was a reflection of our season where we were always getting everyone’s best shot. I thought we played well in both games and they weren’t as even in reality as they were on the scoreboard. We found ways to win.”

Elmira (23-4-1) edged Trinity 2-1 at the Murray Athletic Center last Saturday to punch its third straight ticket to the final four. The Soaring Eagles had to rally from an early deficit as Trinity took a 1-0 lead just 34 seconds into the game.

An early deficit and with Laura Hurd Award winner Isabel Iwachiw in net for the Bantams could have spelled disaster for the Soaring Eagles. However, second period goals from Alex Bresler and Jillayne DeBus gave Elmira a 2-1 lead that they never relinquished.

“They got off to a great start,” Elmira coach Greg Fargo said of Trinity. “Our game plan was to try and take it to them right from the start and we failed at that. We did a good job responding and stayed focused and were able to battle back against a great goaltender and a defensive team. The girls showed a lot of character to bounce back after a shaky start.”

Gustavus Adolphus (22-4-2) finally broke its three-year curse of losing in the quarterfinal round and broke through with a 2-0 win over Wis.-River Falls, the same team that ended the Gusties’ season last year.

River Falls didn’t make things easy though for Gustavus Adolphus, battling the Gusties to a 0-0 tie after two periods even though the Falcons were heavily outshot 31-5. However, River Falls’ goaltender Cassi Campbell stood strong turning away every shot.

Gustavus Adolphus was finally able to bust through at the 2:28 mark of the third with a goal from Allie Schwab. Nara Higano put a dagger in River Falls’ hopes a minute later with another goal to give the Gusties all the offense they would need as they rolled to a the 2-0 shutout win.

“We played really well but for whatever reason we couldn’t get it past their goaltender,” Gustavus Adolphus coach Mike Carroll said. “She played very well and made some big saves. The game could have gone either way but Allie [Schwab]’s goal really got us back in it emotionally and we started rolling from there. We have done a good job of finishing games off recently.”
Norwich (19-5-5) was the trendy pick to make its first ever final four appearance this season and the Cadets lived up to the hype, but not after struggling through the middle and second half of their season.

Norwich continued its postseason resurgence with its fourth straight win by pulling the shocking 3-2 upset of second seeded Plattsburgh. The Cadets lost 7-2 in the regular season meeting between the two squads and for a majority of Saturday’s contest; it looked as though Plattsburgh would pull through again.
However, Norwich’s senior captain Sophie Leclerc had other ideas as she scored twice in the last 1:37 of the game to rally the Cadets to a 3-2 win and shock the Cardinals.

“The kids played well,” Norwich coach Mark Bolding said. “We knew going into the game that we were going to get bombarded with shots. We built up some self-confidence though and weathered the storm through the first period when they outplayed us pretty badly. We responded though in the second and started generating chances in the second while building up confidence setting the stage for Sophie’s heroics in the final minutes.”

Elmira vs. Norwich

The Soaring Eagles and Cadets will meet for the second straight year in the postseason. Last season, Norwich gave Elmira everything it could handle before falling 3-2 in the quarterfinals.

The game features a classic storyline of the perennial powerhouse against the upstart challenger. Elmira will be looking to improve on its 4-1 record in national semifinal games and get to the finals for the fifth time in program history.

“We’re excited to be back,” Fargo said. “When you lose the way we did last year it’s a hard blow at the time. This is a second chance for us to redeem ourselves and erase that memory. We’re hoping to come home with the right trophy this time.”

Elmira returns an experienced group from last year’s national runner-up squad including all three of its top scorers as seniors. The Soaring Eagles have five players with 11 or more goals, led by Sophomore Alex Bresler’s 18.

Senior forward and captain Jenna McCall is the Soaring Eagles’ sparkplug and has responded from a slow start to her season to really turn it on in the second half.

“We know they’ve got some players up front that are talented and some defensive kids that chip in on offense.” Fargo said of Norwich. “They made some adjustments defensive wise against Plattsburgh. They are going to be motivated and we’re going to have to come out with a great effort.”

Norwich has already proven they can rise to the occasion against the ECAC West teams in the big games after giving Elmira one its toughest challenges last season and then pulling the upset of Plattsburgh this season.

Bolding said that he’s proud of how far the program has come in just its third season of existence. The women’s team is quickly becoming like its men’s team who is a traditional powerhouse year in and year out as is currently the top-ranked team in D-III as they head to the men’s final four in the Lake Placid this weekend.

“We feel pretty good about the steps we’re taking and the confidence we are gaining from beating a team like Plattsburgh,” Bolding said. “We’re going to put it all on the table and go out there and see what we can do. Hopefully we can play spoiler and win two more games.”

Norwich matches up offensively with the Soaring Eagles much better than the Cadets did last season. Julie Fortier and Sophie Leclerc have provided a solid one-two punch for Norwich this season with 22 and 14 goals respectively.

The Cadets have yet to beat Elmira in their three all-time meetings between the two programs. Elmira has won 4-0, 8-0, and 3-2 in last year’s quarterfinal game.

“We’re going in looking for redemption and using that as motivation,” Bolding said. “They are not going to play us lightly and we’re going to have to try and outwork them. Typically, Elmira is there every year and they were one goal away from a national championship last year. We’re going to try and exploit any weakness they have and we’re looking at this game like another Plattsburgh.”

Gustavus Adolphus vs. Amherst

Last season Gustavus Adolphus was one of the few teams to beat Amherst as the Lady Jeffs ventured West for a trip that saw them drop games to Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas. Amherst will return to the Don Roberts Arena on Friday with a lot more at stake than last year’s regular season matchup.

The Lady Jeffs return as the favorites and have come a long ways after just making their first NCAA Tournament appearance four years ago.

“It was such a surprise three years ago,” Plumer said. “Our kids are excited, especially the seniors that have been here through the rise of the program. It’s kind of similar to the Christmas morning anticipation feeling. We’re really excited to be going west. We have been a bunch of times and I’m sure it will be a great atmosphere.”

Amherst hasn’t skipped a beat this year even after losing Krystyn Elek, Lindsay Harrington, and Tarasai Karega from last year’s squad. The Lady Jeffs returned five of their six defenseman though from last season, who proved to be the core of the team and one of its strongest assets.

Leading the way on offense for the Lady Jeffs has been the versatile forward Courtney Hanlon. She has 16 goals on the season and is the only player on Amherst with double-digit goals. However, while the Lady Jeffs may lack the top end scoring, they have 15 players with four or more goals on the season.

Plumer said he’s looking forward to meeting the Gusties again after last year’s game for a variety of reasons.

“Gustavus plays the game very fast and smart. They are relentless in the way they attack and they play similar to the way we play. It has the potential to be a great game. Coach Carroll and I talked last year and we each thought that each other were the fastest teams we had played. They are a very good team and very capable of winning it all.”

Although Gustavus Adolphus got over the hump of winning in the quarterfinal round, the Gusties final four track record hasn’t been very good either as they have lost in all four semifinal games they’ve played in and have yet to reach a final.

They’ll look to change that on home ice this weekend. The Gusties are red-hot right now having won their last 13 games and have outscored their opponents 26-1 in their last six games.

Sophomore goaltender Danielle Justice has five shutouts in her last six games to lead the Gusties between the pipes.

Sophomore Allie Schwab and senior Melissa Mackley lead the Gusties’ offense with 30 and 29 points respectively.

“Amherst reminds us a lot of us,” Carroll said. “The way we play is very similar and we’ll need to play our best and we expect to.

“We’re excited about the opportunity to host because it’s a great chance for Gustavus Adolphus to showcase the campus. With this being the first time the final four has been held in the west it shows the growth of women’s hockey isn’t just limited to the east and we’ve got something pretty special out here too.”

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