When given a chance to make history, the Falcons of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls left no doubt.
Led by a hat trick and an assist from freshman sensation Kait Mason, UWRF ran roughshod over Marian on Saturday afternoon, capturing a 9-0 win and completing an undefeated regular season (22-0-3).
“It was a lot of fun,” Falcons coach Joe Cranston said, “just to be in the locker room and know we’d finished the regular season undefeated. It was fun.”
With the two teams at the bottom of the NCHA standings – Finlandia and Marian – scheduled for the last two weekends of the regular-season, the Falcons’ achievement became a near-certainty when they defeated St. Thomas, 5-2, on February 9 in their final non-conference game. However, with the Falcons having been tied by Wisconsin-Superior just four days prior – and with previously undefeated RIT having fallen to Oswego that same weekend – Cranston wasn’t about to take anything for granted.
“We knew – especially with Oswego beating RIT – that anybody could beat anybody with a couple of weird bounces and a hot goalie,” Cranston said. “We went into those games not taking them lightly, but it’s hard to get excited playing those teams. The start of all four of those games, we didn’t come out playing like we wanted to, but we just stuck to our game plan, and got a groove and a rhythm at some point in each one of those games and played well.”
Part of what helps the Falcons find their groove is the knowledge that almost anyone on the ice could be the player to get things going. Six different River Falls players have double-digit goal totals this season, and while Mason has come on strong of late, there is no “star” mentality in the Falcons’ locker room.
“That’s been the case the last few years,” Cranston said. “We’ve had a pretty balanced scoring attack. I think we have five players with 20 or more points, and 13 players in double-digits. Besides Kait Mason taking over at the end – she’s led our conference in points, goals, assists – all four lines can score goals, and I think that’s been a huge part of our success. ”
Even Mason, the team’s leading goal-scorer with 14, is notable for being unselfish.
“She’s just a great hockey player,” Cranston said. “She would much rather make a pass than score a goal. She just works hard at both ends of the ice. She’s been one of our leaders on our team from the time she got here.”
Of course, looking at the UWRF roster, one could suspect a star in the locker room – senior defenseman Lauren Conrad does share her name with a well-known reality TV personality, after all – but Cranston says Conrad’s play on the ice is the only thing that makes her stand out.
“We joke about it a little bit,” Cranston said of his veteran blueliner’s famous name, “but not too much.
“I think Lauren Conrad was the best player in the conference this year. Best defenseman, for sure. She and Kayleigh Bell have been All-American type players all year.”
With the regular season completed, UWRF will turn its attention to the NCHA playoffs, which they’ll start this weekend when St. Norbert comes to town. While the pressures of an undefeated regular season are often debated – many believe the pressure of having no margin for error over such a long timespan can haunt a team when it comes time to play for an NCAA Championship – Cranston feels his team has been tested enough that they’ll be just fine in the postseason.
“In a lot of years, I kind of buy into that philosophy,” Cranston said of the conventional wisdom about undefeated seasons. “Sometimes, a loss is a really good thing to motivate your team. It’s hard to keep learning and getting better if you don’t lose, but I think the nice thing about this season is that we haven’t really been blowing teams out. Our last five games, we kind of did, but besides that, we’ve had three ties, and had to come from behind in several games, and had the one-goal games. That’s really helped us. I don’t think it’s been detrimental that we haven’t had a loss because we’ve had so many hard-fought battles. I think that’s helped us to get better and, hopefully, play our best hockey here coming up.”
And if the Falcons should get to host the NCAA Division III Championship on the weekend of March 18 and 19, and chase an unbeaten season on home ice, so much the better. If not, well, the Falcons will fly wherever they need to go, completely confident in their ability to soar.
“That would be ideal,” Cranston said. “That’d be the perfect scenario. I’d love to have it come here and host. We have great facilities, and we’d do a good job, but if it’s not here and we have to go somewhere else, that’d be OK, too. I just want to be in that tournament and playing.”