Concordia faces daunting challenge

Seven of the eight teams still remaining in the battle for the 2012 NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Tournament are the same names you see pretty much every year in the hunt.

Gustavus Adolphus, Wisconsin-River Falls, Norwich, Middlebury, Plattsburgh, Amherst, and RIT have all been there before, and are traditional powerhouses year in and year out.

Then this year there is Concordia (Minn.).

The Concordia (Minn.) Cobbers are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance after they were selected as the final Pool C “at-large” bid in the field after compiling a 15-5-5 record and tying a program record for wins in a season.

“It’s exciting,” said Concordia (Minn.) coach Brett Bruininks. “I think our kids weren’t ready for the season to end. We’re really excited for the opportunity, and we’re happy the NCAA selected us to have this chance. It’s a great honor, and now we’ve got to go and take advantage of the situation.”

The Cobbers’ postseason hopes were in doubt right up until the NCAA selection show on Monday at 10 a.m., after they lost, 4-2, to Gustavus Adolphus in the MIAC championship game.

However, the doubt quickly turned to elation when the first pairing in the bracket was flashed onto the screen, showing Concordia traveling to No. 1 RIT.

The Cobbers now have a second chance to prove that they belong as they’ll try and erase the memories of the Gustavus Adolphus loss on Saturday at 2 p.m., when they drop the puck with RIT at the Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

“We played Gustavus tough every time. but we ran into some penalty trouble and we had some great chances that we just couldn’t finish,” Bruininks said. “Gustavus does a really great job at capitalizing on mistakes, and I’ve told the team that RIT is going to be the same way.”

“Gustavus also has that experience of playing in a lot of big games. We’re a program that hasn’t played in those types of big games much over the years. It’s slowly coming, but the only way you can get that experience is by playing in those big games.”

After last season’s breakout 15-win campaign, Concordia slowly started to creep into the conversation as one of the up and coming programs in Division III.

“I think I’ve got the hardest working kids in the game,” Bruininks said. “They trust in the system and they trust in each other and they are willing to work as hard as they possibly can to get better every day, and now I think it’s paying off on the ice.”

The Cobbers built off last season’s success with an 8-1-1 start to this season, and were ranked in the Poll for the first time in program history by December.

However, in their second game back from the holiday break, Concordia lost by its largest margin this season, with a 6-1 loss to Division I Lindenwood. That loss sent the Cobbers on a downward spiral, as they went just 1-3-2 over their next six games.

“I think we started the believing the rankings at time,” Bruininks said. “We’re not used to being recognized like that. It’s great exposure for our program. No one really knows about Concordia (Minn.); we’re proud of our school, and any time we can get our name out there, it’s a good thing.”

Bruininks also said the team went through a dry spell where it just wasn’t finishing its chances that it was getting like it had been earlier in the year.

“It’s one of those parts of the season that I think every team kind of goes through at one point where we weren’t finishing chances like we were in the beginning of the year,” he said. “It wasn’t for lack of work ethic, but I think it was more of a lack of focus at times.”

The Cobbers righted the ship though finally on Feb. 4 with a 2-1 over St. Catherine that kick started an eight-game unbeaten streak before last Saturday’s loss to Gustavus Adolphus in the MIAC finals.

Offensively, Concordia relies on the trio of senior Katelyn Dold along with sophomores Abby Taffe and Breann Julius to do most of the heavy lifting.

Dold leads the team with 11 goals and 21 assists for 33 points, and is the program’s all-time leader in points with 58 goals and 63 assists for 121 points.

“All three have been great this season,” Bruininks said. “Katelyn has had a phenomenal career thus far, and led the MIAC in scoring her sophomore and junior year.”

Julius leads the team with 20 goals to go along with nine assists for 29 points, and Taffe has followed up a superb rookie campaign with another solid season as a sophomore. She has 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points on the year to give her a total of 64 already in her career.

“Breann was a nice transfer student to get from Quinnipiac,” Bruininks said. “She has really settled in and brought the experience of playing at the Division I level, that I think a lot of our kids appreciate,” Bruininks said. “Abby was great as a freshman, and she’s continued that another outstanding year as a sophomore this year. The interesting thing about Breann and Abby is that they are both residents of South Dakota, which isn’t known as a hot bed for hockey.”

Bruininks also pointed to solid leadership a group of five seniors who have been a part of turning the Cobber women’s hockey program from a .500 team as freshmen to an NCAA Tournament team in their final season.

“We’ve gotten some great leadership from all our seniors, including Allie Bondy, who doesn’t get the points but she’s a kid who anchors and captains our defensive corps,” Bruininks said.

Concordia (Minn.) will now arguably face its most daunting challenge in program history on Saturday when it takes on the 25-1-1 RIT Tigers.

“We’re the underdog,” Bruininks said. “We don’t have a lot of expectations on us, and we’re going in with a ‘we’ve got nothing to lose attitude’ in this whole thing. We respect what they have done, as they have been near the top every year. We’re in for a dog fight, but we’re really excited for the opportunity to see what it’s like to play at the top level, regardless of the outcome.”