By Ray Biggs
Managing Editor, D3hockey.com
One of my favorite days on the Division III hockey calendar has arrived. The NCAA tournaments are in full swing beginning this afternoon, and that's exciting on multiple levels. This is one of the best days of competition we have on the schedule where a chosen few, the best of the best, battle for the opportunity to take the next step.
It hits an even deeper meaning than that for the eight women's teams competing in today's quarterfinals. This isn't just an opportunity to advance here today. It's the chance to really cement your season as one of the best you could have possibly asked for. As players, you dream of the right to go to the Frozen Four and it's again ripe for the taking here today. It might not be "National Champions" just yet, but "Frozen Four Qualifier" still sounds particularly gratifying at this point. It should. It's a credit to every component of the work you did for the last 52 weeks and beyond that you're even here today to play these games.
|In a Saturday matchup with UW-Eau Claire, Hamline is in search of its first Frozen Four appearance.
Photo: Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
A few programs have had the perennial privilege to be in the discussion time and time again at this time of year, and the names of those schools are now household names in Division III circles. Plattsburgh. Elmira. Middlebury. Norwich. If you're reading our site, you know those names quite well by now. They've been the staple programs of the nation for so long, the holders of most NCAA titles in the championship's short history, and they've done it on an almost exclusive basis. Plattsburgh has set itself apart recently at an unprecedented level with their string of consecutive national championships that just brings this seemingly endless "Wow" factor to their year-end accomplishments every season.
This season, and this tournament, just feels different from those we've seen recently for a few reasons.
After the results of the regular season, there is no longer an odds on favorite to win the whole thing. Just look at that quartet of teams named before alone. Plattsburgh split with Elmira and Norwich this season, and narrowly clipped Middlebury and Adrian by a single goal. Elmira tied Norwich and beat Middlebury this season. Norwich tied Middlebury. At the top alone there's seriously no guessing who is going to make the right play, at the right moment, to elevate their team to the next step. It's just that tight at the top amongst those household names. If you recall, it was that tight at the end of last year's tournament when Adrian came within moments of winning it all. The Bulldogs came up short, but they showed that it can be done, especially for the teams out West still waiting to have their day in the sun with the NCAA championship trophy.
The balance between those four has been rather impressive, but the other gripping storyline that is significantly changing the NCAA tournament landscape is how the entire tournament field is not just part of the competition, but part of the contendership. The idea that anyone can win doesn't just extend to the teams listed before but to this entire remaining field of eight teams.
Yes, you heard me. The entire field. This tournament field is almost half newcomers with three of eight making their first tournament appearance, and i'm sticking with that statement. If you don't know who those teams are by now, I'd advise you to start paying attention to them because they're not just going to help the competitive balance of this tournament, they're going to become a measuring stick in the development of Division III women's hockey in the years to come.
To be clear, i'm talking about Morrisville State, UW-Eau Claire, and Hamline.
What makes that triumvirate stand out? This is a group of tournament debutees that are anything but ordinary. These are hardened, battle tested programs that have proven they can go toe-to-toe, and maybe even land the knockout blow against the long-established programs in the land, and have done so in a relatively short time off the heels of major changes in their coaching staffs and team cultures, or in the case of Morrisville State, they were recently built from the ground up. They've faced adversity, took their lumps in an effort to get better, and are molding themselves into the images their head coaches hoped to see when they started. Simply put, these teams are tough.
In light of the most recent of events, look at UW-Eau Claire as a prevailing example of why this group of programs is for real. Before Erik Strand took over, the Blugolds had some occasionally strong years, but hardly anything that was going to be definitive in a successful program. There were no conference titles to speak of, much less an NCAA appearance. In just three short years, the outlook for the Blugolds has completely changed. They won their first WIAC title, made it to the NCAA tournament, and they're not done yet after knocking off one of the top two seeds in the west, Gustavus Adolphus, in triple overtime tonight, in a game where Erin Connolly simply stole the show in the Blugold net.
After 100-plus minutes of hockey tonight, that club may have to battle their own legs as much as their opponent tomorrow, but if they're tough enough to weather the storm like they had to at times against Gustavus, they're capable of putting up another good fight tonight in a quarterfinal where someone will advance to make their frozen four debut.
The team on the other side of that matchup, is Hamline. A long-struggling program displayed that it could have great, great potential a few seasons ago when they brought Minnesota hockey legend and US Olympic Team alumni Natalie Darwitz in as head coach. Bolstered by additional features like their recent move to the brand new TRIA Rink in St. Paul, Darwitz has helped to overhaul the culture and the talent within the Hamline University program. Hamline has depth they previously could have only dreamed of, with three full forward lines that can legitimately score, including a pair of 50 point scorers in sophomore Bre Simon and senior Sarah Bobrowski, and two more are at 30 points or above. Simon was a Darwitz recruit, and Bobrowski came in from Division I Lindenwood. In addition, Darwitz has largely compiled a roster full of tremendous high school talent from the always stocked Minnesota high school ranks, and when you can attract that collective talent level to one place, you're going to have a very, very good team... one that beat Gustavus two out of three times including for the MIAC title.
That above pairing should make for an impressive quarterfinal considering their head to head result. It was a 1-1 game almost the whole way in an early season meeting between the two, before Hamline put it away in the final five minutes of action with the go-ahead goal and then an empty net score in a 3-1 decision. That's the slimmest two goal margin you're going to find.
Finally, the Morrisville women have somehow, someway continued to move forward. It's a tremendous credit to their players, and to head coach Melissa Lomanto that they've been able to achieve the Colonial Hockey Conference's first automatic bid, and their second consecutive conference title. This offseason, the possibilty that this season could have gone far differently existed. The Mustangs lost their top three scorers, two of them unexpectedly, and starting goaltender Renee Schmaltz transferred to UW-Superior.
How did such a young program survive that? They had to re-invent themselves to a degree, and they embraced that change when it happened. Last season, the Mustangs were a much more prolific offensive team, and had the ability to score in bunches and picked up many of their 20 wins by vast margins. Without that luxury at hand, the Mustangs became much more defensively focused, allowing just 1.33 goals per game while scoring just over two. They've played in eleven one goal games, and are in far fewer games decided by three goals or more than they were a year ago.
That approach paid off enough to get them here, as has the play of goaltender Karoline Arvik. At the rate she's going, Arvik could play her way into the Laura Hurd discussion before her career is over, as she stopped 94.5 percent of the shots she faced as a freshman starter playing 98.3 percent of her team's minutes. That's the type of backbone that can carry you past an opponent, and the door is open if she has her best game today. Nevertheless, the approach at Morrisville doesn't happen without the right coaching, and the right culture.
So there you have it, between the wide open nature of this field amongst the established programs, and some newcomers that have the firepower to crash the party, this quarterfinal Saturday should be one to remember, and one i've been looking forward to since Monday. If it's your time, go out there and take it.