Amherst heads West

Wednesday night’s action will be headlined by one of the rarest matchups you’ll find during the Division III women’s hockey regular season, with two top-10 teams from different regions taken each other on.

For the second time in the last four years, Amherst is heading west to take on two perennially strong West region teams in Wisconsin-River Falls on Wednesday and St. Thomas on Thursday.

Amherst took a trip out west in 2008-09 as well and that didn’t turn out so well, with the Lord Jeffs losing 3-0 to Gustavus Adolphus and 2-1 to St. Thomas. However, things turned out alright in the end for Amherst, as the Lord Jeffs ended up winning their first national championship a few months later.

“We all met our here last time, rather than having a couple weeks of practices under our belts and into the daily routine coming off of the break,” Amherst coach Jim Plumer said. “We’re also trying to approach this more as a regular road trip with the kids staying in a hotel until the games are over.”

Last time, the players and coaching staff grouped up and stayed in various Amherst players’ houses from the area.

Amherst is coming off a weekend series split with arch-rival Middlebury. Each squad won a game by a score of 3-2, and both teams sit atop the NESCAC standings with identical records.

“It’s great intense fun that is exhausting and physical when we play Middlebury,” Plumer said. “It was the exact opposite of what happened last year, as we won the first game and lost the second and it was vice versa this year. It’s great to have that level of competition in our league.”

The Middlebury series kicked off a brutal stretch of games that will tell us a lot about this Amherst team and where it stands in the national pecking order currently. After the two games against Wis.-River Falls and St. Thomas, the Lord Jeffs return home to Orr Rink to host the No. 1 team in the nation and defending national champion Norwich Cadets on Tuesday.

“I think it’s a lot harder in reality than it is on paper, even though I thought it looked hard on paper to begin with,” Plumer said. “The effort level and exertion we had in the two games against Middlebury and now having these games just a few days later is going to be a challenge. I expect that the River Falls game is going to be a real high-intensity game, and then we’ll play St. Thomas on Thursday with them playing their first game and we’ll be on short rest.”

Amherst will be coming into Wednesday’s and Thursday’s game blind, as with the rarity of East/West region crossover matchups, knowledge and game tapes are few and far between.

“We know very little about River Falls,” Plumer said. “I watched half a game on a webcast that they played earlier this year against Gustavus and both teams looked good. In some respects, I welcome the opportunity to not over prepare and have a predisposition of what they are going to do.

“We’re going to focus on what we do, and we’ll watch for what they do while playing a more fundamental game. That’s the case with both of these games this week, since we don’t know that much about either of them.”

Wis.-River Falls coach Joe Cranston said that this meeting with Amherst was something he had been itching to get for quite some time.

“We’ve been trying to find a way to play each other for a while and now it’s finally here, so this should be a lot of fun,” Cranston said. “I’m pretty good friends with Jim [Plumer] dating back to when I met him while he was an assistant at Bowdoin in the 2003 Frozen Four at Elmira.”

Cranston thought his team was in a little bit of the same situation as Amherst this season, with a lot of scoring by committee rather than one or two standouts.

“I think Amherst is kind of in the same boat we are,” Cranston said. “We’re getting production out of all our lines, but that’s usually how it is with us with the exception of Kait Mason last year.”

Last year as a freshman, Mason set a torrid scoring pace that resulted in a RBK First Team All-American selection after she posted 20 goals and 20 assists for 40 points. This year though, Mason has found a rough go of it, with just four goals and five assists for nine points in 14 games played.

“She’s playing well, but other teams are keying on her a little bit more this year,” Cranston said. “Everyone has an awareness and gives an extra effort to try and shut her down. She’s also been a little snakebit this year by hitting a lot of pipes and she just hasn’t had the luck that she had last year.”

Whether the teams want the honor or not, many fans, players, and coaches will be looking to these two teams as the flag bearer, if you will, for their respective region in Wednesday’s game.

“We’re very mindful of how this impacts the NCAA selections, and in that respect of also representing the East region,” Plumer said. “But, first and foremost we’re representing ourselves and our ability to potentially get a bid to the NCAAs.

“I think this year is going to be the most evenly-matched NCAA tournament we’ve had to date. Speaking from the East region, anyone of the six East teams in the [USCHO poll] could be there in the end.”

For River Falls, the Falcons will be looking at the game as a chance to get back on track after losing to Lake Forest and playing another quality team before it hits the stretch run of its regular season schedule.

“I always look at it from the Western standpoint as an opportunity for us to be on the big stage like that and to prove that there are some teams out here that can play,” Cranston said. “Playing a team like Amherst brings that much more energy and excitement for our girls.”