Wisconsin-River Falls didn’t get what they wanted when they dropped an overtime contest to Amherst last week.
It’s quite possible, however, that the Falcons got what they needed.
It’s not that the non-conference loss would hurt the team’s NCAA tournament hopes; UWRF is 13-3-2 on the season and ranked No. 8 in the latest Division III national poll. Still, the Falcons know what it’s like to have a perfect regular season, and while they would never try to lose a game, a “0″ in the loss column is definitely something they can live without.
“As a coach,” Falcons bench boss Joe Cranston said, “I like the fact that we’ve lost a game or two – actually, a game would be better – but it is nice to have a loss or two, just so we know we have to keep working hard and getting better. Every game has got to be a stepping stone.”
The 2010-11 Falcons could have been poster children for the perils of an undefeated regular season. From a season-opening 5-0 win against Bethel on Nov. 5, 2010 to a 9-0 win versus Marian on Feb. 19, 2011, River Falls was unbeatable, finishing the regular season with a 22-0-3 record. The Falcons cruised to Northern Collegiate Hockey Association O’Brien Cup Final, outscoring the opposition14-5 in their first three playoff games. In the conference final against Adrian, however, it all went south.
“We were up 3-1 [against Adrian],” senior forward Katie Flanagan said, “and we were just so comfortable, we thought we had that game, and we just crumbled. We expected to win, and the better team won that game. They came out in that third period ready to dominate.”
River Falls lost 4-3 in overtime to Adrian.
Despite the disappointment, UWRF had done enough in the regular season to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, and home ice for a quarterfinal game against Gustavus Adolphus. The Falcons were still reeling, however, and couldn’t get on track against the Golden Gusties, getting outshot 17-7 in the first two periods and eventually losing 4-1. After arriving on the doorstep of history, the Falcons had been relegated to the dustbin.
“It was just so easy for us to go into a game thinking, ‘We haven’t lost a game yet, so why would this be any different?’” sophomore Kait Mason said. “I think that toward the end of the season, we realized that we can’t think like that. Getting beat by Adrian definitely started an emotion in our team that we didn’t really feel throughout the whole season.”
This season, that hasn’t been a problem. The Falcons came out hot again, sweeping Adrian to kick off a seven-game win streak, but dropped an overtime decision to Wisconsin-Superior on Dec. 2. UWRF responded by going unbeaten for six more games. While a split with Lake Forest and a loss to Amherst took some more wind out of River Falls’ sails, the Falcons are still regarded as one of the nation’s top teams, and with eight more NCHA games before a non-conference tilt with St. Thomas ends the regular season, Mason and company know that they are in a strong position.
“The atmosphere in the locker room as we play games is definitely upbeat,” Mason said. “We definitely need to hunker down and keep winning games. I think we’re doing well right now as a team.”
After she exploded onto the scene last year as one of Division III’s top 10 scorers, Mason has taken a different role in the UWRF offense this season. This year’s Falcon squad doesn’t have a single point-per-game scorer, as Mason’s classmate Katie Batters leads the team with 14 points in 16 games, and Mason’s four goals and five assists place her seventh in scoring on a team that’s taking an offense-by-committee approach.
“It was definitely hard for me,” Mason said, “coming in from last year, having such a successful season, but this year, Katie Batters definitely deserves to be where she is. She works so hard and deserves all the points that she gets. As long as my team wins, and I do whatever I can to help my team win, at the end of the game, if I don’t have any points, as long as my team wins, that’s all I really care about.”
Like Mason, the Falcons aren’t soaring as high this season as they did a year ago, but it may well be that a lower flight path is exactly what they need to reach their destination.
“Having that unbeaten streak is an experience that not a lot of people can say they were a part of,” Flanagan said, “and obviously, that’s something we’ll never forget. But we also learned a lot from it. Last year, we were just too comfortable with winning, and we would come out expecting to win. This year, we can’t. We’ve already been beaten, and I think that helps us work a little bit harder each game, too.”