For RIT head coach Scott McDonald, losing to Oswego on Feb. 12 was the best thing that could have happened to his Tigers.
No one likes to lose, of course, but as the Tigers prepare to host the NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship this weekend holding a record of 25-1-2, McDonald can see that removing the pressure of a potential undefeated season was a key factor in his team’s ability to win the ECAC West Championship and defeat Adrian in a quarterfinal game to reach the championship weekend.
“I think that loss was the best thing that ever happened to us,” McDonald said. “We had two games against Plattsburgh in mid-January, two very grueling games, and I don’t think our team ever recovered from that, mentally and physically, and I think it all came down on us in that last Oswego game. We were going through the motions, and the effort just wasn’t there like it should be. It was a great wake-up call, and exactly what we needed at the right time. At the time, it was tough on us, but it was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to us.
“I think it let loose some of the pressure that was building up on us. I think the girls were more concerned with staying undefeated and having that perfect record than going out and playing and having some fun. I think it was weighing them down, and mentally it was kind of draining. I’m glad it happened, and we just kind of forgot about it, and people stopped talking about it.”
The Tigers were able to let go of even more pressure in their 10-1 victory against the Bulldogs this past Saturday, when senior forward Katie Stack scored a natural hat trick in the second period to claim the all-time program record for goals. With Stack having carved out her place in the RIT record book, the business of winning an NCAA Championship will be the only focus for the Tigers this weekend.
“I think that was kind of weighing on her mind,” McDonald said of the goal record. “Now that that’s out of the way, I think we’re going to see a relaxed Katie Stack out there who just wants to play. When she’s just going out and playing, she’s at her best.”
While Stack , it’s her classmate, Sarah Dagg, who makes the Tigers go. A finalist for the Laura Hurd Award as the top player in Division III, Dagg leads the Tigers in total points with 41 (18g, 23a), and has been a key catalyst for RIT all season, and really, for her entire career.
“Sarah’s been the leader the whole time she’s been here,” McDonald said. “It’s her third year as a captain on the team. She’s the energy player on our team and the spark plug, whatever name you want to give her, she’s it. She gets everybody going in the locker room, and she’s kind of that happy-go-lucky kid. Nothing really affects her, and people feed off that energy all the time.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice for Friday’s semifinal stands a Middlebury team that, to head coach Bill Mandigo, is without stars.
No one gets to the championship weekend without talent, of course, but it’s the Panthers balance that makes this year’s team stand out from the others that Mandigo has coached in his 23 years as head coach.
“They are a true team,” Mandigo said of his Panthers. “There aren’t any superstars out there. We’ve always had one or two, maybe three superior players, and for this group, it’s just a bunch of young women who work hard, like each other, have the same goals, and have just stuck together through the ups and downs. They’ve been the true embodiment of what a team is supposed to be.”
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That balance, which has helped the Panthers reach this point with only three double-digit goal-scorers, has also been evident in front of senior goaltender Alexi Bloom, who ranks second in Division III with a .950 save percentage and third in goals-against average at 1.02.
“Alexi’s had an outstanding senior year,” Mandigo said. “She exudes confidence, and the players kind of follow along and feed off of her. At the same time, she’s been able to avail herself of some of the defense in front of her and the way that we play. It’s not that we’re winning because of Alexi. It’s Alexi and everyone else.”
And, with a sound, solid, defensive game perfect for playing on the road, the Panthers are unintimidated by the prospect of playing against the Tigers at a packed Ritter Arena. In fact, while the RIT men’s team will be in action on Friday afternoon in the Atlantic Hockey championship, downtown at Blue Cross Arena, Mandigo isn’t looking for any overtime to keep Tiger fans from coming back to campus.
“I hope the place is packed,” Mandigo said. “I hope every seat’s filled. It’ll be a great atmosphere for both teams, and great for women’s college hockey.”
The Tigers, McDonald said, will be happy to oblige.
“We’ve discussed it with the men’s team,” McDonald said with a laugh. “They’re going to take care of business in regulation, and then buses will be waiting for all the students after the game, and they’ll be at our game for the drop of the puck.”
While the RIT men’s team is playing Connecticut, Norwich and Gustavus Adolphus will be playing for the right to meet RIT or Middlebury in the Division III Championship game. The Golden Gusties come in confident after taking down a Wisconsin-River Falls team that went the entire regular season without taking a loss.
“I had an excellent feeling about our team going in,” Golden Gusties coach Mike Carroll said. “We were on a roll, and we hoped the fact that they’d had a tough weekend the week before would carry over, and we could go in there and get off to a good start and continue to play well, and we did.”
Like Middlebury, the Gusties bring great balance to the game, with eight players reaching double digits in points and only one player averaging more than a point a game. They go up against a Norwich team led by the top scorer in Division III, senior forward Sophie Leclerc, and a second 20-goal scorer, junior forward Julie Fortier. Gustavus Adolphus, however, has one of the top goaltenders in the nation in junior Danielle Justice, who second in the nation in goals-against average at 1.00 and boasts the fourth highest save percentage in Division III at .943.
“When we get in a situation where we need a big save,” Carroll said, “or there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of emotion going on, she’s pretty unflappable.”
With Justice, Bloom and RIT freshman Laura Chamberlain all in action this weekend, goals will undoubtedly be hard to come by, but not as hard as an NCAA championship.