March 19, 2009

 

BOSTON (AP) -There are three big-time women's hockey powers at the NCAA Frozen Four this weekend.

And then there's Mercyhurst.

The Catholic college from Erie, Pa., is making its first appearance in the national semifinals, which begin Friday at Boston University's Agganis Arena. With a roster of 15 underclassmen - and a 16-game winning streak - the Lakers will play two-time NCAA champion and six-time semifinalist Minnesota on Friday.

"I'm sure each team has players who are really comfortable in the moment, and some may have players that are nervous," Mercyhurst coach Michael Sisti said. "There are probably some advantages to them going through this. ... I think we're just excited and prepared. The biggest thing is that they take this opportunity to play the best they can so that they don't have any regrets regardless of the outcome."

NCAA women's hockey has never been a wide-open endeavor like the 64-team men's basketball tournament that hit full stride on Thursday. Only 33 teams play Division I women's hockey, and eight are invited to the three-round NCAA tournament; only 10 teams have made the Frozen Four and just three different schools have won it.

Those three: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth, who finished 1-2-3 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and happen to be the other three teams in the Frozen Four.

Asked if there was a favorite going into the weekend, Sisti said: "If there is, it's not us."

"Clearly, everyone knows the track record of the WCHA teams and their success," he said. "I think the nice thing about hockey is that once the game is played, anything can happen."

But it's not like the Lakers are out of place.

Mercyhurst (30-5) went undefeated in the four-team College Hockey America conference and beat St. Lawrence in the national quarterfinals. Forward Meghan Agosta, an unprecedented three-time finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award and an Olympic gold medalist for Canada in Turin, led the nation in goals and assists per game.

"We're certainly not going to overlook them," Minnesota (32-4-3) coach Brad Frost said. "They have a lot of players with international experience and have played on big stages, so I anticipate they will come out quickly and be excited to play. I'm sure they'll be ready.

Defending champion Minnesota-Duluth (26-8-4) will play top-seeded Wisconsin (32-2-5) in the other semifinal - a rematch of last year's championship game. In fact, the two teams also played for the 2007 title, which Wisconsin won, and they've already met five times this season.

"I think sometimes when you're the defending national champions, you feel a lot of pressure, but we have not this year," coach Shannon Miller said. "We won last year. That was awesome. It was right in Duluth. The stars were aligned. ... Our approach is this: It's our third season in a row here. We don't feel any pressure. This is all about having fun, and we've always played our best hockey when we're having fun."

The Bulldogs had the home-ice advantage last year and skated off with the trophy in their hometown. This year's event restores the neutral site to the tournament, though Wisconsin's Hilary Knight is from New Hampshire and Erika Lawler and Meghan Duggan are from Massachusetts.

"I don't really think anyone has an advantage here," Lawler said. "But we are going to have big, crazy families here that are going to support us. I know that the entire team is really happy to be here and anytime you have an opportunity to play in the Frozen Four, it is an honor."