West comes East for Frozen Four
Women's Frozen Four gets underway Friday in Erie, Pa.
ERIE, Pa. -- The NCAA Women’s Frozen Four enters its second decade Friday afternoon on the heels of 10 years of dominance from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
WCHA teams have owned the National Collegiate title since its inception, with Minnesota-Duluth winning five championships (including the first three), Minnesota winning two, and Wisconsin winning three of the last five.
With the WCHA Champion Badgers entering this year’s Women’s Frozen Four as the top overall seed with a record of 35-2-2, it would seem only natural to anoint Wisconsin as the favorite in a field that also includes Hockey East rivals Boston College and Boston University along with ECAC Hockey champion Cornell.
To the Badgers, however, that would be foolish.
“I think that when you make it this far in any tournament in any season you can’t really count anyone as an underdog, or say that anyone is a clear favorite,” said Badgers senior forward Meghan Duggan, one of the top three finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in the country. “I think the four teams that are here have all had successful seasons, and worked hard to get where they are.”
Their gaudy record notwithstanding, the Badgers have certainly had to work to keep adding wins in the postseason. The last two weeks have seen the Badgers beat archrival Minnesota in overtime to win the WCHA title, then come from behind to defeat last year’s NCAA Champion, Minnesota-Duluth, in a game that didn’t see the Badgers take the lead until 7:34 of the third period.
Now, the Badgers face Hockey East champion Boston College, a team they’ve never lost to. Of course, the two teams haven’t played one another since 2002, so the history between the teams means as little to Friday’s game as the history between the men’s programs -- who have met for the NCAA Championship in two of the last five seasons. Instead, as Badgers head coach Mark Johnson looks at the Eagles, he’s more interested in recent events; namely, the 4-1 quarterfinal win against the Minnesota team that took the Badgers to overtime the week before.
“They put a lot of pressure on Minnesota and got off to a very quick start,” Johnson said of the Eagles. “In these tournaments, if you’re able to do that, your chances of winning certainly go up.”
The Eagles feature their own Patty Kazmaier finalist in senior forward Kelli Stack, who will graduate as the program’s all-time leading scorer. However, as BC head coach Katie King looks at her team, she sees it as being defined by the work ethic common to all her players, rather than the singular talents of Stack and Molly Schaus, who won silver medals last year with the U.S. Olympic Team.
“We don’t like to get out-worked,” King said. “That’s something that I think you’ll notice about our team, from the first player to the 24th player. We work hard day in and day out, and it’s very noticeable out there on the ice. When you see our kids play, they’re really a gritty team who will do anything to come out with a win, and they play like a team as well. As successful as some of our kids have been individually, they are very team oriented, and everyone does a good job of keeping the team together as a unit, and win as a team and lose as a team.”
The Eagles shared their flight out to Erie with Boston University, which could make for an interesting trip back should the two archrivals -- located a mere streetcar ride apart on Commonwealth Avenue -- meet for the NCAA Championship on Sunday. For now, however, the Terriers are focused on another traditional rival: Cornell, which will face the Terriers in Friday’s second semifinal. It will be the first meeting between the Big Red and BU as varsity women’s hockey programs, but the rivalry on the ice between the two schools dates back to the days when the men’s teams regularly battled for the ECAC championship, up until BU left to become a founding member of Hockey East in 1984.
“We played Cornell in some great games,” said Terriers head coach Brian Durocher, who played for the Terriers in the late 1970s, “some highly competitive teams. Our kids, unfortunately, don’t know the stories or the tradition, but for somebody who’s my delicate age, we know some of the stories, and they’re great ones.”
Cornell head coach Doug Derraugh began his playing career for the Big Red shortly thereafter, but he heard plenty about the rivalry with the Terriers from his older teammates.
“I can remember when I first came to Cornell, there were a lot of chants with BU involved,” Derraugh said with a smile. “I heard a lot about it when I first came here, and they’re obviously a very talented team and a very strong team. We’re looking forward to a really good hockey game.”
Both coaches have helped their alma maters rise through the ranks of women’s hockey, taking teams that weren’t even a part of the national conversation when they started and building them into NCAA Championship contenders. Under Durocher, who started from scratch as the coach of BU’s first varsity women’s hockey team, the Terriers’ rise has been meteoric, as the team made the NCAA tournament for the first time in its fifth season, and has reached the Frozen Four in its sixth.
“I remember the first class,” Durocher said, “and the biggest question they had was, ‘Will I ever play in any big games?’ My promise to them was that we would play in big games, and the big games for those six or seven ladies was to be in the Hockey East final four in their last two years. We weren’t that far from getting into the NCAA tournament that year, and lo and behold, one year later, in a pretty close field, we win Hockey East and get to come to the final eight. I’m super excited that we’re here in year six.”
Cornell, meanwhile, got to the championship weekend a year ahead of the Terriers, losing in triple-overtime to Minnesota Duluth in the championship game after stunning top-ranked Mercyhurst in an overtime semifinal. While the Big Red enters this year’s Women’s Frozen Four with a shining 31-2-1 record, neither Derraugh nor captain Amber Overguard has any interest in discussing the transition from underdog to favorite.
“The reality of it is that it’s the four top teams in the country,” Derraugh said, “and it’s one night, one game, and who’s going to be the better team on that night. We’re the No. 2 seed, but I don’t put a lot of stock in that.”
“All the teams here are really amazing,” Overguard said, “and it’s just a great atmosphere. As far as top dog and bottom dog, I don’t think there is one. You can’t put teams in this tournament, on different levels like that.”
The only way to advance to the top level, after all, is on the ice, and on Sunday afternoon at Tullio Arena, one team will reach that level.