Johnston and Fortino part of the riches at once ragged Cornell

Cornell is celebrating its third ECAC regular season title in as many seasons, and in two weeks, it hopes to add a third straight conference tournament championship as well. What makes such achievements more remarkable is that prior to its run, Cornell had experienced nothing but losing seasons, both overall and in conference, throughout the NCAA era.

There were hints in advance of what was to come. In February 2008, a Cornell squad making its first postseason appearance in years faced a dominant Harvard team that was perfect versus ECAC opposition in the quarterfinal round. The Big Red were eliminated in two games, but they hung right with the Crimson, losing what were essentially a pair of one-goal games, with one margin padded with an empty-net goal.

Much of Cornell’s renaissance can be traced to the arrival of better players in Ithaca, N.Y. Sudbury, Ontario’s Rebecca Johnston raised a few eyebrows when she committed to the Big Red at a time when their wins-per-season could be counted on one hand. Now a senior, the forward has accounted for 89 goals and 84 assists for 173 points through 110 collegiate games.

“I think she’s helped us obviously turn the program around from all aspects,” Cornell coach Doug Derraugh says. “On the ice, just a dynamic, dangerous offensive player who now plays a real strong team game: great defensively, great penalty killer, a great team leader. As great as she is and all the accolades that she has won, she’s also a very humble individual. Also helping our team to turn our program around and to go from where we were to where we are now and accomplish the things that we’ve accomplished as a team. Obviously, she’s been a huge, huge part of that.”

Ironically, it was while Johnston was taking a year off from the Big Red to win an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2009-10 that Cornell experienced its first and greatest postseason success.

“We were picked maybe seventh or eighth in the ECAC that year,” Derraugh says. “We got off to a tough start, but we played Mercyhurst, I remember, our first two games, and they were one of the best teams in the country at that time. We played pretty well, and we felt pretty good about our team going into the year.”

Things turned out fine. Cornell survived a rocky stretch where its roster was depleted, took the regular-season title by three points, and defeated Clarkson in overtime to take the ECAC tournament championship and propel it to greater things.

In its first NCAA tournament game in program history, Cornell went on the road and produced a convincing 6-2 win over Harvard. The Big Red followed that up with a 3-2 overtime win over top-ranked Mercyhurst in their Frozen Four debut. Cornell then missed out on the ultimate prize by the narrowest of verdicts, falling to Minnesota-Duluth, 3-2, in triple overtime in the national championship game.

“We got on a roll down the stretch, and that carried over,” Derraugh says.

Johnston may have been away when the first trophies were won, but her impact was still felt. Other talented players had followed her path to Cornell, such as Laura Fortino.

“Of course, that was one of the factors that interested me in coming here,” Fortino says. “Having the opportunity to play with such a high-caliber player like her, being different positions — I’m a defenseman, she’s a forward — having that caliber of player in practice, playing against her in practice, is such a great honor. That makes me better, I guess.”

Fortino anchored the team’s defense as a freshman when the Big Red made their playoff run in 2010. Now a junior, she’s the nation’s top blueliner in points-per-game. She says that she doesn’t try to emulate anyone in particular when she’s on the ice.

“Of course, there were a lot of people that helped me down the road,” Fortino says. “Coach Derraugh, [is] always out there every day after practice working on things with me and helping me get better every day. Just people back home that I’ve grown up with and have helped me over the years get better in my game.”

Last season, much was expected of the Big Red. Most of its core group returned, Johnston was back from the Olympics, and the team added talent such as forward Brianne Jenner, who had also centralized with the Canadian national team as it prepared for the Vancouver Olympics.

By most measures, Cornell met those expectations. It posted a 20-1-1 ECAC mark and went 31-3-1 overall. The 31 wins set a new high for the program; however, the season ended in a 4-1 loss to Boston University in an NCAA semifinal. It was a learning experience for a team not accustomed to the favorite role at the national level.

“I think that’s really helped our team be more focused and be ready for those expectations, and I think now we understand it better, and I don’t think it has as much of an effect on us,” Derraugh says.

Knowing how abruptly a season can end changed the staff’s approach in the offseason.

“We started looking at the next season and made a plan for the entire year, worked through everything and where we wanted to be at certain points of the season, what we wanted to get accomplished at different times of the season, how we were going to approach things going into the playoffs, went through the entire year before we started, so that we weren’t trying to figure it out as we went,” Derraugh says. “I think, as they say, the team that’s more prepared usually is the team that’s successful. In college hockey, it’s one game at the end of the year. It’s not like pro hockey, where you’ve got the best-of-seven. It comes down to one game, and you have to be on that night, and everything has to come together.”

One of the biggest challenges that Cornell has faced over the course of the current season is player absences due to international competition. Because of the high talent level on the roster, 10 players have missed games for national team commitments. Four players and Derraugh were representing Canada at the Four Nations Cup when Cornell suffered its first defeat at the hands of Dartmouth in November. The team survived unscathed while six others were competing at the Meco Cup in January.

“We had such a small roster, and it just was great to see how we come together with such a small group and bear down to work hard,” Fortino says. “It just goes to show what kind of character we have on this team, that no matter who we’re missing, we still come together and work hard and come away with big wins.”

As with many teams, injuries have also proven to be an obstacle for the Big Red. Canadian Under-22 goaltender Amanda Mazzotta, who backstopped Cornell to the brink of the championship two years ago, has been forced out of the lineup twice this season, most recently when injured at St. Lawrence on January 27.

“It’s week-to-week,” Derraugh says. “We’re hoping that she’ll be back before the playoffs, but that will be up to the doctors and the trainers. There is a possibility that you will see her before the end of the season.”

With the senior out of action, sophomore Lauren Slebodnick performed admirably in net last week as Cornell avenged one of its losses with a 5-1 win over No. 6 Mercyhurst.

“I think that was really an important game for us,” Derraugh says. “Obviously, that’s a real strong team in Mercyhurst. We split with them down there, so I think from a confidence standpoint, it was very important for us to know that we could raise the level of our play and have a real strong game for 60 minutes against one of the best teams this year in the East, a team that we could very well face in the NCAA tournament as well.”

Over the course of the season, Cornell has demonstrated an ability to play multiple styles, winning high-scoring games with Mercyhurst and St. Lawrence where the opponent scored four times, and coming out on top in tight 1-0 contests with Princeton and Dartmouth.

“The girls on our team have such a variety of talent that we’re able to adapt in games to whatever is thrown at us,” Fortino says. “That’s hard to develop that characteristic on a team. I feel like having that on this team is going to help us down the road.”

Next up is the final regular-season series. Cornell, with a record of 24-3, hosts Clarkson, which won the teams’ first meeting, followed by St. Lawrence on Saturday.

“I think the real competitors want the tough games, they want the tough competition, they want to be on the line, and that’s what the playoffs are all about, and that’s what the end of the season is all about,” Derraugh says. “Teams are fighting for positions right now and trying to get their teams prepared as best they can for the playoffs.”

Fortino says consistency will be key for her team as it competes in the final postseason for seniors like Johnston, Mazzotta, and Catherine White.

“Just believing in each other and our teammates and our systems that the coaches put in place,” Fortino says. “I think if we do that on a consistent basis, hopefully, everything should fall into place and achieve our goals.”