ERIE, Pa. – When the season begins to draw to a close, one often hears underclassmen talking about playing for their seniors, and giving them the best send-off possible, ideally with an NCAA Championship.
However, as Wisconsin prepares to face Boston University on Sunday afternoon in the NCAA Championship game at the 2011 Women’s Frozen Four, it might be more appropriate for the Badgers’ seniors to play for the underclassmen.
After all, if senior forward Meghan Duggan can lead the Badgers to an NCAA Championship victory on Sunday, it will be the third in four seasons for the winner of the 2011 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award. For the rest of the senior class, who held down the fort last season while Duggan, junior forward Hilary Knight and head coach Mark Johnson were representing the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, it will be their second championship. For the freshmen and sophomores however, it will be their first.
For Duggan, though, the key to victory on Sunday at Tullio Arena will be the same as it has for every one of Wisconsin’s 36 victories this season: all the Badgers playing for one another.
“Being a part of this team this year is different than any other team I’ve ever been a part of,” Duggan said Saturday, “with the way all the girls play for each other, day in and day out, regardless of class status or playing time. We have an incredible group of girls. We all play hard for each other and challenge each other to make one another better. I think, tomorrow, we’re all playing for each other, and playing for that trophy.”
Still, as Duggan and her classmates prepare to wrap up their successful careers in Madison, it’s worth looking at the contributions of the younger players. After all, when Duggan drove to the net in the final minute of Friday’s game against Boston College, it was a sophomore, Brianna Decker, who put the puck in the net to vanquish the Eagles and put the Badgers in the championship game. Freshman forward Brittany Ammerman, meanwhile, has joined older sister Brooke on the Badgers’ roster and contributed 13 goals and 12 assists in 38 games. For her part, Madison Packer has contributed 13 goals and 13 assists of her own this season, a strong beginning for a player who has the ultimate name for a Wisconsin athlete.
“I first heard the name Madison Packer, I think as a seventh- or eighth-grader,” Johnson said, “as like the ideal person to play for Wisconsin, and here she is.”
Still, as the Badgers, seniors and underclassmen alike, prepare to play for the title on Sunday, the key freshman contributor will be between the pipes.”
A native of Delafield, Wisconsin, who watched Jessie Vetter backstop the Badgers to an NCAA Championship as a freshman in 2006, Alex Rigsby is a win away from matching the feat. She enters Sunday’s game sitting ninth in the nation in goals-against average with a 1.78 mark and a record of 26-1-2, and has record a .945 save percentage in her first two NCAA tournament games with the Badgers.
“She’s obviously a huge role model,” Rigsby said of Vetter. “She’s done everything possible for the team at Wisconsin. Seeing what she did when she was here, I had big shoes to fill when I came in, but I looked at it as a challenge.”
Johnson, for his part, was wary of talking about Vetter, choosing to focus on what Rigsby needed to do to achieve success.
“I think it is unfair to try to compare one to the other,” Johnson said of Vetter and Rigsby, “and so we did not talk about that to Alex when she decided to come to Wisconsin. She is her own person and she has had to do her own thing.”
Obviously, Rigsby’s done her thing as well as can be expected, leading the nation in win percentage, and backstopping the Badgers to three consecutive one-goal victories in pressure-packed situations. First, she made 26 saves in a 5-4 overtime victory over Minnesota for the WCHA Championship. She followed that up with a 29-save effort in a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Minnesota Duluth in an NCAA quarterfinal, and made the 23 saves she needed to make on Friday in the Badgers’ 3-2 win over Boston College.
“Those are experiences that help her develop,” Johnson said, “and help her become a better goalie, so she sits right now as a better goalie than she was a week ago or two weeks ago, just because of the experience that she’s gone through. She’s going to create her own path, her own journey, but we like what we see up to this point.”
For Rigsby and her classmates, the journey is just beginning. For Duggan and hers, the journey is reaching its end. On Sunday, however, all of the Badgers, veterans and newcomers alike, will walk in lockstep on what they hope will be the journey to an NCAA Championship.