ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In theory, it could have been just about anyone.
In retrospect, it had to be Julie Fortier.
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Nearly one year after scoring a hat trick for Norwich against Gustavus Adolphus in an national semifinal game at Frank Ritter Arena on the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology, the native of Saint-Malachie, Quebec scored 4:07 into overtime to once again lift the Cadets past the Golden Gusties and into the national championship game.
“You’re so happy to win a game like this,” Norwich coach Mark Bolding said, “and then you look back, saying, ‘I can’t believe they were that determined and that strong.’ Credit to the other team. I’m definitely proud of our players.”
It’s tempting to look at the 2012 NCAA Division III Women’s Ice Hockey Championship as a repeat of the 2011 tournament. The venue is the same, with RIT hosting once again. Three of the four teams are back, with Plattsburgh State having beaten Middlebury to take the spot previously occupied by the Panthers. And, after Friday’s semifinals, the teams that will meet for the Division III title are the same teams who played for the national championship a year ago.
However, for all the similarities thus far, there were noticeable differences between last year’s Gustavus-Norwich game — which saw the Cadets jump out to a 5-1 lead before Gustavus made a third-period charge that came up just short — and this year’s edition, which saw the Gusties and Cadets trade the lead back and forth until Fortier’s tip-in from Sarianne Lynn put Norwich up for good.
“It was two different games,” Gusties coach Mike Carroll said. “Almost polar opposite games. I’m really proud of our players; they played their hearts out. We had a shot to win; we very easily could have, especially when we had the power play to start the overtime.”
Gustavus did, indeed, have a power play to start overtime — the result of a too-many-players penalty with three seconds left — but the Cadets cracked down defensively and held the Gusties without a shot. That set up the heroics from Fortier, who had been honored one night earlier with the Laura Hurd Award as the top player in Division III women’s hockey.
That kind of lofty honor could lead to expectations of coming up big late in the game, but from Fortier’s perspective, she just happened to be in the right place in the right time.
“You try not to think about it,” Fortier said, who also set up Norwich’s third goal, “especially when you have a good team playing with you. It’s easy, because I have good wingers, we have a good second line and a good third line…even the fourth line can score goals. You try not to think about it and it just happens.”
To her coach, though, it was an example of a great player making a great play at a key time.
“Special players can find a way to get it done in a lot of sports,” Bolding said. “It’s fitting that two terrific players who are leaders for us [would come up big]; Jill [DeBus] scored a big goal for us, Julie to finish it.
“What’s funny with that play is that we had a fourth-line winger out there, Meghan Papagno out there, grinding it out, and the puck went around to our defenseman and our top scorer scored. That’s how you draw it up, but it’s pretty fun to have that No. 21 [Papagno] jump three feet in the air when she’s on the ice and the team scores. That’s good for all of us.”
That leads to another return engagement in the national championship contest on Saturday, but with an extra wrinkle. Both Norwich and RIT tied the Division III record for wins in a season with their 27th victories on Friday. Whoever wins on Saturday night will not only be the NCAA champion, but the NCAA record-holder.
Not that the Cadets are giving that too much consideration.
“Records are always broken down the road,” Fortier said. “I think we just want to play for the national championship, not for the record.”
The Cadets will be looking for the repeat championship, but the Tigers have a different repeat in mind, having beaten Norwich on the road back in October. Bolding knows his team faces a difficult challenge on Saturday night, but he’s confident that his team can find the right approach. In fact, they may have already found it.
“I think we just have to regroup and realize that maybe we are the underdogs again,” Bolding said, “even though we’re the defending champs. They stung us early in the season — a pretty definitive 4-1 loss in our own rink — so maybe that’s the mindset that the players have to take. We’re going to have to come out firing and work hard. It’s a big challenge, but I overheard the players saying, ‘If we get to play somebody, why not play the best?’”
That’s exactly what will happen, and while the outcome may not be certain, one thing is
“It’s going to be a fun 24 hours,” Bolding said.