March 19, 2009

When people in the know talk about collegiate women's ice hockey, they are bound to mention the three superpowers in the sport -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth. After all, the trio consists of the only three teams to win a national title since the NCAA began sponsoring a women's national collegiate championship in 2001.

But women's hockey fans need to put another team on their radar this year as Mercyhurst College, a small school located in Erie, Pa., joins the big three at the Women's Frozen Four on March 20-22 in Boston, Mass.

Mercyhurst is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament as the Lakers have earned a berth in the championship field every year since 2005. However, the program had never won a game in the tournament until they downed St. Lawrence, 3-1, in quarterfinal action last week, earning the school's first-ever ticket to the Women's Frozen Four.

"It's a big accomplishment," said junior captain Meghan Agosta. "We've made history at Mercyhurst by being team at the school to advance to the Frozen Four. We're really happy, but it's a step to our next goal. The team is looking forward to this coming weekend."

Head coach Michael Sisti moved over from being an assistant coach for the school's men's hockey program in 1999 and was charged with building a successful Division I women's program.

"What's been nice here is that we've done an awful lot in a short period of time," said head coach Michael Sisti. "I think we're very proud of the progress we've made. One of our goals every year is to maximize the potential of our teams and our players and get better throughout the season. This year was a very young team, and we battled adversity all season, but we keep getting better and stronger as the season goes on. We're certainly pleased with where we are right now, and looking forward to getting two more wins."

"Coach Sisti and the coaching staff and past players have brought this team to the next level really fast," said Agosta. "I know the coaching staff has worked really hard to prepare us and get every one of the players better. They work really hard and I don't think they get the recognition they should. People on the Mercyhurst campus and in the Erie community are really proud and are looking forward to seeing what happens this coming weekend."

Agosta has been a key component in taking the Lakers to the next level. The native of Ruthven, Ontario, came to Mercyhurst three years ago after winning a goal medal with Team Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. She was the youngest member of the squad, tallying a hat trick against Russia as she celebrated her 19th birthday.

The impact of Agosta's presence on the ice was immediate as she became the first freshman to be selected a top three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award after leading the nation with 1.09 goals per game and 11 game-winners. She followed her rookie campaign up with another All-American season, and was voted as one of three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award once again.

This season, Agosta has kept up her torrid pace, and enters the Women's Frozen Four as the national leader with 2.59 points, 1.31 goals and 1.28 assists per game, and last week, became the first player in the history of the Patty Kazmaier Award to be voted a top three finalist three times.

"She's obviously a great player and a great person, and I think the more weapons you have, the more chances you have to win games," said Sisti. "She's someone who is exciting every time she touches the puck, and certainly gives us a better chance to win every night she's in the lineup."

Agosta expects Minnesota to be the favorite in Mercyhurst's semifinal game with the Golden Gophers, but she also has confidence in her team's ability to take that next step.

"There definitely is an underdog mentality, but we know our talent and what we can do," said Agosta. "We control our own destiny. It's the girls in the jerseys that will have to go out there and perform to the best of our abilities. The coaching staff has done a great job with preparing us for this Friday's game. We can't look too far ahead, so we're just concentrating on Minnesota. They're a great team, but we're going to go there expecting to win."

Sisti agrees that his team will be viewed as an underdog, but he believes he team will keep proving they belong amongst the nation's elite.

"I think in a lot of ways our team and program has always been the underdog," said Sisti. "We maybe don't have the name power of some places, and haven't been around as long as some places. We're a smaller school, and it's just a matter of us proving ourselves. We've been able to do that in a lot of ways. The kids that come on campus see how beautiful it is and the great education they get here and the great coaching they get. (The Frozen Four) is just another opportunity to prove ourselves."

The Lakers know they have a tough road ahead at the Women's Frozen Four, but are looking forward to making a name for themselves as one of the best teams in the nation.

"These three WCHA teams are the only ones to win the NCAA Championship, and eventually someone is going to have to go and change that," said Sisti. "We've got a nice opportunity. They're definitely three of the deepest teams in the country and have earned their reputations and the respect that we have for them. We're going to have to play an almost perfect game to win, but that's the great thing about sports - anything can happen on any given day."

Mercyhurst and Minnesota will face off at 8 p.m. on March 20 following the first match-up between Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth at 5 p.m. The winners will meet in the championship game on March 22 at 12 p.m.