Women’s D-III playoff preview: first round games

This year’s NCAA Tournament field offers a unique blend of historical programs and new kids on the block. The two-time defending national champion Amherst Lord Jeffs won’t have a chance to defend their title after falling to Middlebury, 4-3, in the NESCAC championship. Also, for the first time ever in the 10-year history of the NCAA Division III Women’s Tournament, neither Elmira nor Plattsburgh will be in the field.

Middlebury is back after a one-year hiatus and, as always, Gustavus Adolphus is in the field after winning its eighth straight MIAC Tournament. Manhattanville also returns after a two-year absence after beating Norwich 4-2 in the ECAC East championship game. The Valiants last made an appearance in 2008, making it all the way to the national championship game before falling to Plattsburgh, 3-2.

Norwich has quickly built its program from the ground up and is already making its third NCAA appearance in just its fourth year as a varsity squad. The Cadets made it all the way to the national championship last year before falling 7-2 to Amherst in the final.

Adrian and RIT round out the field, as the Tigers will make just their second NCAA appearance this year, despite being a contender on the national stage for several years now. Adrian makes its inaugural appearance this season after winning the NCHA Tournament and knocking off previously unbeaten Wisconsin-River Falls in the finals. River Falls also made the tournament as one of the at-large selections, along with Norwich.

The tournament gets underway this weekend with the quarterfinal round with one game on Friday and two games on Saturday. Norwich received a bye to the semifinals and will be the only team not competing this weekend.

Gustavus Adolphus @ Wis.-River Falls — Friday, 7:05 p.m.
For the third straight year, Gustavus Adolphus and Wis.-River Falls will meet in the NCAA quarterfinal round. Each team has picked up a win in the previous two years, with River Falls winning 2-1 in 2009 and Gustavus winning 2-0 last year.

The matchup also pits a former coach/player combination, as Gustavus Adolphus coach Mike Carroll coached River Falls’ Joe Cranston on a boys’ community college team in Northern Minnesota in the mid-’80s.

“Joe worked his way up through the Wisconsin boys’ ranks and then ended up at River Falls while I was here,” Carroll said. “We enjoy coaching against each other, and we banter with each other back and forth, but from the drop of the puck to the end of the game, we’re as competitive as ever against each other.

“We play nonconference every year, being only about 1:45 away from each other, because we both know that if we play some of the better teams around its only going to make our programs better toward the end of the year.”

River Falls (24-1-4) enters Friday’s matchup coming off a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to Adrian in the NCHA championship game, which derailed the Falcons’ dreams of a perfect season.

“We definitely had a letdown,” Cranston said. “We’re lucky it didn’t really affect us seeding-wise. It affected other people. It’s actually probably for us a wakeup call. We have looked a lot better this week than we did last week in practice, so I think it’s lit a spark under our team.”

River Falls led, 3-0, midway through the second period before the Bulldogs came back to score four unanswered goals, including two in the last three minutes of the game and then the game-winner a little over halfway into the first overtime.

“We hit a pipe to have a chance to go up 4-0 and they got a bounce to go their way for their first goal and then Adrian just slowly built up momentum and we just kind of played like we expected to win,” Cranston said. “If we had gone out in the third period and played like we were down a goal, we probably would have won the game, but we didn’t do that.”

In the two teams’ only meeting this year, River Falls beat Gustavus Adolphus,4-2, on Dec. 10.

“At times, we played well in the (Dec. 10) game,” Carroll said. “But there were a lot of little things that hockey teams need to do better on throughout the year, and we’ve identified quite a few of those things and we’ve hope that we’ve shown steady improvement in those areas.”

Since losing to River Falls, the Gusties are 14-1-3 and just wrapped up their eighth straight MIAC title with a 3-0 win over Bethel last Saturday.

“We need to set the pace,” Cranston said. “We roll four lines and they don’t, so I think our biggest advantage in the game will be depth as the game goes on. We need to come out fast and set the pace. That’s what we did last time we played against them and they just couldn’t quite match the speed. It’s been a huge rivalry for the past 12 years. When you play Gustavus, everybody is fired up to pla,y with almost all the games being one or two-goal games.”

River Falls freshman Kait Mason had been lighting up the score sheet left and right down the stretch this season. In her last eight games, Mason has 13 goals and eight assists for 21 points.

“She’s just gotten better all year,” Cranston said of his star freshman. “She doesn’t like the limelight, but she likes to come out and work hard and get the job done. She’s quietly become one of the leaders on our team.”

Gustavus will be looking to return to the semifinals for the second straight season after four straight quarterfinal defeats.

“Nothing matters about the past at this point,” Carroll said. “It’s all about how a team shows up Friday night, and if we can put our best foot forward, I like our chances.”

Manhattanville @ Middlebury — Saturday, 7 p.m.
Middlebury and Manhattanville’s NCAA history runs deep, as from 2005-2008 the two clubs met in the NCAA quarterfinals four straight seasons. Middlebury got the better of the Valiants for each of the first three seasons until finally, in 2008, Manhattanville got over the hump and beat Middlebury, 4-3, in overtime.

“We’re excited to be back in the tournament and at home,” Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo said. “We haven’t played them since 2008 in the NCAA quarterfinals. They’ve got a good goalie and some good players up front. Any time you can beat Norwich at Norwich, it’s a great win, especially in the ECAC East championship. Anyone who is in the tournament now is a good team.”

Middlebury started the season with a 6-0-0 record before dropping both games at the Cardinal-Panther Classic to Elmira (2-1) and Plattsburgh (5-0). The Panthers have won 13-of-14 games with their lone loss coming to Norwich on Feb. 15th by a score of 3-2.

“Our kids have worked hard over the second half of the season and gotten better,” Mandigo said. “We understand what our limitations are, and we don’t try and do too much. We’ve done a very good job of rallying each other through the good moments and the bad moments.”

Manhattanville will make its first postseason appearance under third-year coach Eric Lang at the Chip Kenyon ’85 Arena on Saturday. The Valiants had ruled the roost in the ECAC East since 2002, until Norwich won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 after Manhattanville was eliminated in the conference semifinals.

The Valiants have made three national championship appearances, losing 2-1 in 2002 and 5-0 in 2003 to Elmira, as well as 3-2 to Plattsburgh in 2008.

Adrian @ RIT — Saturday, 3 p.m.
RIT won its first-ever ECAC West Tournament title with a comeback 2-1 win over Plattsburgh in the finals last Sunday. The Tigers scored two power-play goals in the final seven minutes to come back and punch their second ticket to the NCAAs in program history.

“It was literally a continuation of the previous two regular season games, with neither team budging,” RIT coach Scott McDonald said. “It came right down until the end. and the last couple minutes of the period. I think we kind of rattled them a bit with our first goal and then added another a couple minutes later, both on the power play.”

RIT went out to Adrian in early January this year and beat the Bulldogs, 4-2 and 8-0.

“It’s one and done time now,” McDonald said. “Everyone is playing at the top of their games right now, so there really can be no let downs. You certainly can’t overlook anyone, and the worst thing we can do is look at the regular season scores against them. Looking at the tape from the second game we played against them when it was 8-0, it very easily could have been an 8-5 game if they converted on their chances.”

McDonald went on to say that he hoped his team wasn’t complacent with just getting to the NCAAs, since none of them were a part of the last RIT squad that made the NCAA tournament and then abruptly lost, 3-2, to Krystyn Elek and Amherst in 2007.

“It’s Adrian’s first time making it to the NCAA tournament, but it’s also the first time any of our girls have made it into the tournament either,” McDonald said. “I’m a little worried about us falling into the just-happy-to-be-here mentality, because you can’t have that at this time of the year.”

Adrian’s backs have been up against the wall ever since the NCHA semifinals, when the Bulldogs knew if they lost, their NCAA chances were over with, so the one-and-done mentality is nothing new to them.

“It’s super exciting to be here at this point with our first senior class,” Adrian coach Melissa Lomanto said. “They had a lot of determination this year and they’ve mixed in well with a talented group of freshmen and sophomores to get us to this point.”

Adrian punched its first ticket to the tournament by scoring four unanswered goals to stun River Falls and end the Falcons’ unbeaten season on home ice last weekend in front of a rowdy crowd at Hunt Arena.

“We never got down on ourselves and the girls kept a positive attitude that we could come back and then we did get two goals late in the third to tie it,” Lomanto said. “Our bench was going crazy, and then we ended up getting the winner in the overtime.”

Lomanto pointed out that Adrian was the first team to have RIT down twice in a game this season in the 4-2 loss in January.

“We were the first team at that time to have them down twice in a game, so we knew we could play with them,” she said.

The Bulldogs will also be playing the No. 1 team in the country for a remarkable sixth time this weekend when they take on the newly-minted top-ranked Tigers on Saturday afternoon at the Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

“This is going to be the sixth time we’ve played the No. 1 team in the nation, so that won’t be anything new,” Lomanto said. “We’re confident in our chances, and if we play like we did the first time against them, we’ll have a shot. We’ve got to stay out the box and not take 20 minutes in penalties, because their power play is unbelievable.”

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