Women’s D-III: Hamline gearing up for a postseason run

McKenna Hulslander of Hamline (JOACHIM BAECKER/Hamline Athletics)
McKenna Hulslander of Hamline is one of two Pipers’ goalies with Frozen Four experience. (JOACHIM BAECKER/Hamline Athletics)

Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Hamline Pipers are in second place in the MIAC, trailing Gustavus by one point and holding a one-point lead over Augsburg. That shows the depth in the conference, according to Pipers coach Natalie Darwitz. Hamline could be in first place, but the last three weekends they’ve left point on the table in ties with Gustavus, St. Thomas, and Saint Mary’s.

“I think we’re one of the conferences that on any given night, 1-8 is anybody’s game,” said Darwitz. “I look at the last three weeks, obviously Gustavus and St. Thomas are top teams. I would have to say I don’t think St. Thomas has gotten the bounces they’ve probably gotten in the past. Besides losing their goalie and a defenseman or two, they are essentially a Frozen Four team. They usually get hot in the playoffs, and I’m sure they will. Gustavus is having a great year, and then sprinkle in just those teams who are fighting for a playoff spot, Bethel, Saint Mary’s, there’s just a lot of parity within our conference, and we beat each other up every weekend. I think that’s just a testament to our conference and its strength. Every given weekend, there’s no gimmes, no free passes. Every team is going to test you. If you hit a few pipes and don’t get a few calls, you might end up with a tie, and that’s exactly what happened against Saint Mary’s. They did the same thing against Gustavus, tying them. On the outside you could probably look at it and think there’s a lot of flukiness going on, but I think if you ask every single coach in the MIAC, they would probably tell you the same thing I’m telling you. It’s a battle any given night, and it doesn’t matter who your opponent is.”

Hamline was the runner-up to Plattsburgh for the national championship last year. This year’s team is an offensive force, with four players averaging over a point a game and two more just under that. The Pipers are eighth nationally in scoring.

“That’s one of the things I think we have this year that we might not have had in past years,” said Darwitz. “If you look at our team last year, our first line was heavily getting the points. If you look at our lineup this year, there’s a good mix of it being spread out. Look at our Gustavus win; our top line didn’t have any points on Saturday, it was our second or third line getting the points. I think that’s going to be key because arguably the top two lines on every team, they’re so powerful that you can cancel that out and look to your second or third lines. I think that’s going to be big for us going down the stretch here, that we can get supplemental scoring from kids who aren’t at the top of the lineup or expected to every night.”

Sophomore Molly Garin and senior Bre Simon continue to lead the Pipers in scoring; Garin is eighth nationally in points with 34, and Simon is 12th with 32. One player who has stepped in and become important to the Pipers’ scoring is first-year Sophie Rausch, who has 28 points, tied for third nationally among first-year players.

“Sophie is just a joy,” said Darwitz. “I mean, she’s not a freshman. She came in right away making an impact. She has the hockey sense. Quite honestly, she probably could be a probably a D-I player. She’s strong on her skates and has one of the hardest and quickest releases I’ve seen in D-III in a long time. She got the tools, and she’s just a competitor. She’s come in and added depth to our team. She’s scored some key goals at key times, and what I like about her is other times if she’s not scoring, she’s blocking shots, she’s winning board battles, and as a first-year that’s really important to have.”

As the Pipers prepare for the postseason, another area of depth is in goaltending, where the they have two goaltenders with Frozen Four experience in junior McKenna Hulslander and sophomore Jaela O’Brien. So far, Darwitz is platooning them. Each backstopped the Pipers to the Frozen Four in their rookie season.

“We tell our goalies that we need them to play steady,” said Darwtiz. “We don’t them to make any crazy saves, just make that first save. We have confidence in both. I think it’s important that they’re both been playing in key situations. McKenna as a freshmen played in the Frozen Four, and Jaela last year as a freshman played in the Frozen Four. They both have that experience, and that’s something we’re going to rely on. They both have been there and done that. It’s just going to come down to who is seeing the puck better, what type of team we’re playing, and situations like that. We’ll just put the kid in who we feel is going to give us the best opportunity to do those things, and right now, we have confidence that both can do that.”

If the Pipers are going to return to a third-straight Frozen Four, they have their work cut out for them. Currently sitting at 11th in the PairWise, the Pipers likely need to win the MIAC tournament and its autobid to qualify.

“I mean, first of all, I don’t understand PairWise,” laughs Darwitz. “I’m sure other teams are also wondering why we’re where we’re at with our strength of schedule and everything and how it compares to the East and their strength of schedule. We’re not looking at that now. We’re just literally one game at a time, take care of business this weekend against St. Catherine’s, and then have a week to take care of business and another week to take care of business. I think that with this group, when we’re on our game and we’re all in, I think we’re a top team in the nation. If you look at our season, we have three losses against really good opponents in Adrian, Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Augsburg. We’ve beaten the top teams. We split with Eau Claire, we’ve beaten Gustavus, taking three of four against them, and then three of four against St. Thomas. We’re battle-tested, and we have the experience. We’re going in with a pretty underdog mentality of we’re not getting the respect, and that’s OK. We’re just kind of going to do our thing. If we fly under the radar, that’s OK with us. We’ll just take it one game at a time. This group has a belief about just going in and applying it on the ice. It’s not going to be an easy task. The league play this year has been tough every game. Gustavus, St. Thomas, Augsburg, and whoever the fifth team is who gets in, they’re all going to have their sights set on doing the same thing we’re trying to do. It’s going to be a fun ride here in the last few weeks.”