There’s not a lot that seems to make sense when it comes to the Cornell Big Red’s season. Their roster is young — just seven of their 22 players are upperclassmen. Currently fifth in the ECAC standings, the Big Red are ranked No. 6 in the country. The lone Ivy League squad among the top conference and nationally ranked teams, they’ve played at minimum five fewer games than their competition. Yet somehow, with 11 games left on their regular season roster, Cornell is about as in control of their destiny as they could hope to be at this point in the season.
The race for the top of the ECAC is as tight as it’s ever been. The top six teams are all within five points of each other. Just two of those remaining games are against teams currently sitting above them in the conference standings. They’ll play eight games against conference opponents below them on the table, whose combined record is 14-41-5.
The contributions of their young talent have left the Big Red in a great position looking toward the postseason and really peaking a season or two before a glance at their roster would have you believe they should. The top three scorers on the squad are underclassmen. Sophomore Kristin O’Neill, freshman Madlynne Mills, and sophomore Jamie Bourbonnais account for 48 percent of the goals the Big Red have scored thus far and 44 percent of the teams’ points total.
Though she obviously doesn’t have an easy way to compare, Mills said her conversations with friends in other programs lead her to believe that no squad has welcomed, embraced, or integrated their rookies like Cornell has. Though many skaters finding themselves wanting to put their first year behind them, Mills said she and her fellow freshmen have been joking that they never want to stop being rookies because the transition and season have gone so well.
“We (all the freshman) have had conversations about how much we love being the rookies because of how well we are treated. This has been important in knowing that we have an important role on the team and we are just as valued as everyone else,” she said.
With a small core of upperclassmen, it’s been important for the younger players to take on bigger roles and more responsibility and thus far, they’re all handling it with aplomb. Instead of feeling lost or overwhelmed, Mills and her fellow freshman have seemed to flourish. She leads the team with 11 goals and has found herself an integral part of the team’s chemistry and success.
Cornell’s gritty style of play has also helped Mills ease into the college game. She’s able to focus on winning along the boards and getting the puck. The finesse of a prettier game will come with time and comfort on the ice, but in the meantime, she doesn’t feel pressure t o be perfect.
“The systems and the style of our team has made my transition easier because I know that I don’t have to be the most talented player to play within our system, I just have to bring my best effort to every practice and game,” said Mills.
Bourbonnais is one of those sophomores who’s taken on a bigger leadership role in just her second season. She feels like a veteran and puts that down to the same welcoming atmosphere that’s helped this year’s freshmen become so acclimated.
“Talking with girls on other teams I know that there is usually a bit of a divide between the freshmen and the upperclassmen, which is not at all the case on our team,” she said. “The girls on our team really make an effort to get to know the freshmen, and we have all become really good friends because of it. … Looking at the friendships on our team, classes really don’t matter to us. The freshmen have played a huge role in our team’s success.”
To have reached their potential with such a young team speaks volumes about the culture and program that’s been built at Cornell. The team’s chemistry on the ice is very much built on the respect the players have for each other off the ice.
Bourbonnais has been really impressed by the recruiting process set up by coach Doug Derraugh and his staff, especially now that she’s experienced it as a member of the team. Being able to share input on how a potential recruit fits with the team off the ice and on campus gives the team some ownership in the culture that’s built and the chemistry that’s created. It fosters open communication from players up to the staff, and that absolutely has translated to on-ice success for the team, she said.
That focus on the players as not just stellar student-athletes, but also above-average people, has helped rookies like Mills feel invested in the team, the culture and the program and, she said, helps her feel like a better prepared college student and adult in the real world.
“(Recruiting good people) is what starts off our team’s culture, but also the daily focus on being a better person,” said Mills. “The coaching staff also challenges us to be vulnerable with each other and connect in a deeper way than just average teammates. This further ties our team together on and off the ice.”