Exploding or grinding, Mercyhurst marches on

Emma Nuutinen (20 - Mercyhurst) after scoring a first period goal (2018 Omar Phillips)
Emma Nuutinen (20 – Mercyhurst) after scoring a first period goal (2018 Omar Phillips)

In 2005, the NCAA expanded its national collegiate tournament to three rounds and eight teams. Of the 14 events played since that expansion, Mercyhurst has made the tourney field in 12 of them.

“We’ve got a proud program,” Lakers coach Michael Sisti said. “We made it like 10 times in a row without the auto-bid.”

It was a strange twist of fortune when after finding a way to earn an at-large selection so many times from a small conference in a constant state of flux, Mercyhurst’s string of consecutive NCAA appearances was halted in the first year that the CHA awarded an automatic tournament berth to its champion.

“We want to have great seasons,” Sisti said. “The only nice thing is if things don’t go according to plan, it’s nice to have the carrot that we used last year, and you can have a good weekend and get in.”

In 2018, the Lakers arrived at the CHA tournament in Buffalo, New York, with a lower than usual 16-14-4 mark. They survived Syracuse, 3-2, in overtime in the semifinal, thanks to an Emma Nuutinen goal late in the extra session. In the final, Mercyhurst rallied with four straight goals to take the championship with a 5-3 victory, as Nuutinen netted a second game-winning goal in as many days.

A few years back, it was a foregone conclusion that the Lakers would take the CHA tourney crown, and the rest of the league was battling for second place. However, that was just their third title in the last seven tries, as both Robert Morris and RIT have broken through with a couple of championships apiece. The CHA has come a long way from its early beginnings.

“I think we’ve got great coaching across the board,” Sisti said. “The teams are deeper. As you know, there are some teams there that have pretty deep pockets. That makes it easier to get good quick. It’s great for women’s hockey; it’s great for our league. We battle hard throughout the season, and I think whoever moves on is prepared. Like even last year, I feel we gave Clarkson everything they could handle in that NCAA game.”

Mercyhurst traveled to Potsdam, New York, to face the Golden Knights and held a lead in the third period before falling in sudden death.

“Some of those games have been epic games,” Sisti said of his team’s NCAA tournament experiences. “We’ve lost some painful ones, but we’ve won some phenomenal ones.”

The 2018 tournament was the fifth time that heartbreak arrived for Mercyhurst in overtime. As Sisti said, there have also been successful forays, including going to Ithaca, New York, and upsetting a seeded Cornell squad in consecutive seasons in 2013 and 2014, and reaching the title game in 2009.

That 2009 team was led by Meghan Agosta, who finished in the top three in the Patty Kazmaier voting in all four of her seasons and racked up an NCAA record 303 points in her career.

“We pride ourselves on always trying to have a real good team, even in the Agosta years,” Sisti said. “Obviously, we’ve also had great players go through our program. We think we’ve got great players now, the Finnish kids with national experience and some other players on our team.”

Sisti does have quality players on his team, but just not quite the elite producers he had in the person of Agosta, Kazmaier winner Vicki Bendus, or a trio of players who reached and exceeded the 200-point plateau in their careers: Christine Bestland, Jesse Scanzano, and Bailey Bram.

“We’ve won all different ways over the years, and we hope to do that again this year,” Sisti said.

Another staple of the program has been its goaltending.

“Our goaltending has always been solid, and I think it is again,” Sisti said. “Any good team, you need goaltending if you’re going to win.”

Four-year starter Hillary Pattenden set an NCAA record in 2012 when she became the first goalie with 100 wins.

“I don’t know how many shots Kennedy [Blair] had [Saturday], but she gave us a chance on a tough night,” Sisti said. “We have [Sarah] McDonnell, who has great big-game experience.”

Mercyhurst opened the current season on the road versus No. 3 Minnesota, and was swept in two very different games.

“I thought [Friday], we had a great chance to win the game,” Sisti said. “We might even have had the better chances.”

Nuutinen opened the scoring in the first period, and the Lakers had opportunities to expand the lead before the Gophers battled back to take a 4-2 decision. Saturday, Blair didn’t get much help, as her team faced a 20-1 disadvantage in shots on goal before the game was 20 minutes old, and Mercyhurst succumbed, 5-0.

Sisti said, “We’ve got to take some positives out of the weekend and learn from them and get better.”

He doesn’t posses the thunder that he had on his bench at the start of this decade. Senior Sarah Hine leads the current team in career points with 50.

“Different people on different nights contribute to help us grind out victories,” Sisti said.

If this proves to be another year with a team that is more blue collar than explosive, the objective is unchanged.

“Our approach is the same,” Sisti said. “We want to win as many games as we can.”

That isn’t always easy. Sisti likes to play a difficult nonconference schedule, and that can lead to slow starts. A year ago, the Lakers lost 10 of their first 16 games in a first-half schedule that included eight games against NCAA tournament teams, including six versus squads that would reach the Frozen Four.

“I know some teams, some programs, like to schedule a weaker schedule and gain confidence,” Sisti said. “There’s something to be said for that. We like to hope our kids can believe in themselves and win or lose some of those Grade A games and still improve from it.”

While those rigorous contests denied Mercyhurst an at-large spot a year ago, perhaps they indirectly contributed to the eventual league tourney win.

“If you want to be a great program, I think you got to play great teams, because they bring out the best in each other,” Sisti said. “Even though we lost these two games, I think Minnesota learned some things about their team and saw some areas they can be exploited by a pretty good team. I think this is why it’s good to have these matchups.”

He should know, having piloted his team to all 462 of the wins that the program owns. His team may need to be reminded of the benefits of a grueling slate, as next up is second-ranked Wisconsin. Before January is a week old, Mercyhurst will also have played series versus currently-ranked teams from Cornell, Ohio State, and Colgate.

That might be just the formula Sisti needs to prepare the Lakers for yet another NCAA quarterfinal. If so, he’s looking forward to the start of the national tournament.

“It’s been the easiest week for me to coach in 20 seasons,” Sisti said. “You kind of have everyone’s full attention.”