Brooke Zaleski

For three years, Danielle Maludy, Nicky Futers and their classmates on the Adrian College women’s hockey team had worked to make their fledgling program the best it could be.

For three years, they saw their compatriots on the men’s team celebrate conference championships, and last season, they got a hint of what was possible for them when they saw the Bulldog men secure their first berth in the NCAA Division III Championship.

“They’ve always been back in the previous years to see the men win their league,” head coach Melissa Lomanto said of her seniors. “To see them raise their banner is something that the girls had always wanted.”

Saturday, the Bulldogs’ first class of four-year seniors had their last chance to make it happen, and Lomanto was perfectly confident that her team would capitalize on the opportunity.

“I was expecting a win,” Lomanto said. “We had some great weeks of practice, tightened up our systems, and had become more disciplined as a team.”

That the opposition, top-ranked Wisconsin-River Falls, had not been beaten this season, did little to temper Lomanto’s optimism. After all, in tying the Falcons, 2-2, on Jan. 29, the Bulldogs had already learned that they have what it takes to compete against the best teams in Division III.

“It was the kind of game where you feel like you lost,” Lomanto said, “because we had them. We were up, and then we were in the penalty box, and [River Falls] scored, and it was a 5-on-3 goal. In a sense, it felt more like a loss because we had them, and then we didn’t stick to our plan. So, we all knew that we could come out and do it this weekend.”

Still, when UWRF took a 3-0 lead early in the second period, it would have been understandable to believe that Adrian was down for the count. However, winners in eight of their last nine games, the Bulldogs weren’t about to lose faith.

“It’s always discouraging,” said Maludy, the Bulldogs’ captain, “being that far along in a game and being down, but we’ve always been a team that was able to pull through, and come back and win games that we didn’t start off so great. I don’t think there was ever a point where we gave up.”

That confidence was boosted when Futers scored with 8 minutes to go in the middle frame, bringing the Bulldogs within two goals.

“Even from the start of the game, all the girls were just so excited,” Futers said, “and had that feeling that as long as we kept up our spirits, and stayed positive with one another, that we had that flying chance to take down River Falls. After scoring that goal, the momentum completely changed, and all the girls raised through the roof and started playing a completely different game.”

The Falcons were able to hold off the Adrian attack for most of the third period, but Olivia Rork scored with 3:05 remaining in the game, and Stacey Kempson scored with the extra attacker with a 1:30 left to force overtime.

In the extra session, the Falcons outshot the Bulldogs 6-2, but Adrian got the shot that counted when Nina Laurie scored unassisted at 12:19 to give the Bulldogs their first NCHA title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Women’s Championship.

“Everyone was screaming,” Futers said. “The sticks and everyone’s gloves were flying. Everyone’s just jumping off the bench. There was not even a second after her goal [before] we were together as a team in a huddle, celebrating the big goal and the big win.”

The Bulldogs’ reward for their win is a trip to No. 1 RIT, another team that went deep into the season before suffering a loss, and a team that beat Adrian by scores of 4-2 and 8-0 back in January. Still, having grounded the Falcons, the Bulldogs have come to see that anything is possible.

“It’s definitely a huge confidence booster,” Maludy said. “It gives our team the ability to know that we can compete with the top teams. It gives us all the encouragement to know that we have our chance, and we have our shot.”

Regardless of what happens, though, the Adrian seniors will be able to leave as champions, not only as the first four-year senior class in program history, but as the class that led Adrian to the NCHA title and into the NCAA Division III Championship quarterfinals, less than four years after the puck first dropped at Arrington Ice Arena.

“It’s always been a big dream,” Maludy said, “but it never really hit home until it actually is happening. The shock of winning this weekend made it a reality.”

It’s a reward well-earned for this group of seniors, who committed to building a new program and making it the best it could be.

“They’ve shown their dedication,” Lomanto said. “They work hard every day in practice. They compete.”

And on Saturday afternoon in Rochester, the Bulldogs will compete again, and look to take their young program one step further.