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Callan Sheridan | | December 11, 2018

Women's hockey: How strong defense and team culture has made Clarkson this half-decade's dominant program

Clarkson takes the title

The Clarkson Golden Knights have dominated women's college hockey for the last five seasons. They are 153-29-19 in that span and have won the NCAA championships in 2014, '17 and '18.

We wondered what it is that makes the program so successful. So we looked at the numbers and got in touch with ECAC coach of the year Matt Desrosiers, senior forward Loren Gabel, senior captain Cassidy Vinkle.

Here’s what we found: 

Numbers don’t lie

In 15 seasons of play, Clarkson has accrued a 349-159-39 overall record. It’s had just two losing seasons, in '04-’05 and ‘10-’11, but hasn’t had one since 2010 and hasn't had a season winning percentage less than .810 since 2015. 

Here’s some more numbers to digest. In 15 seasons, Clarkson has:

  • Qualified for the ECAC playoffs every year it’s been in the division (since 2004-05)
  • Produced five All-Americans, three Patty Kazmaier Award finalists and one Patty Kazmaier Award recipient
  • Made seven appearances in the NCAA tournament 
  • Competed four times in the Women's Frozen Four
  • Advanced to the title game three times 
  • Won the title game each time it advanced to the title game (2014, '17, '18)
  • Become the first team from the east and just the fourth different team overall to win the NCAA title

MORE: Princeton's Bullock headlines latest women's three stars of the week

Culture lessons

According to Desrosiers and his players, the secret to Clarkson's championship path goes beyond rankings or stats. It's the environment that Desrosiers, his staff and players foster that is paramount to the program's recent success.

Ask anyone within the program — coach, all-time leading goal scorer, team captain — and they’ll all tell you the same thing: It’s the team that fosters the success of the individual.

Senior forward Loren Gabel said just that.

“Those successful players are successful not only because of themselves but because of the players around them and their coaches and teammates pushing them every single day to be better and be the best player that they can possibly be,” Gabel said.

You are who you recruit

Success like Clarkson has seen in recent years isn’t sustainable without roster depth and a strong recruitment process. Obviously, you want talented players. But Clarkson isn’t just recruiting the best players available. It's recruiting the right players. 

“We want kids that want to be better,” Desrosiers said. “We want kids that want to improve and we want kids that have lofty goals for themselves, and are willing to work hard and do what they can to achieve those goals, not only individually but as a team.”

As the coach and Gabel have said, the Golden Knights are big on individual success stemming from team success — and they recruit players who buy into that. 

The best offense is a good defense

You need to score goals to win hockey games, and winning hockey games is how you win a national championship — or three. While Desrosiers thinks his team has been pretty solid on both sides of the puck in recent years, the ability to have an aggressive offense stemmed directly from a strong defensive development in earlier seasons. 

MORE WOMEN'S HOCKEY NEWS: Stats | Scores | Rankings

As a young program, Desrosiers said the Golden Knights were focused on shoring up its defensive end and building from the net out.

And build they did. Starting in 2010, freshman goalie Erica Howe worked her way to the starting spot by the second half of her rookie season. She was named ECAC Goaltender of the Year in her sophomore campaign and again the year after when she became Clarkson’s all-time winningest goaltender. By her 2014 senior season, she had the best goals against average in the country (1.10), led the nation with 14 shutouts, a .941 save percentage, and backstopped Clarkson to its first NCAA championship. 

That would be a tough act to follow — unless you’re Shea Tiley, next up on Clarkson’s list of goaltender extraordinaires. Tiley had a similarly successful trial-by-fire as she harnessed starting goalie duties her freshman year, topping the ECAC leaderboard in nearly every stat recorded for goalies and named Goaltender of the Year. Tiley went on to backbone Clarkson for two national championship games, earning the Golden Knights their second and third titles. 

To round out nearly a decade of defensive strength, Clarkson is joined this season by former Ohio State standout netminder Kassidy Sauve, who set the Buckeyes' career mark in shutouts with 22 in 88 games, and was second in the nation last season with 920 saves.

Clarkson has been gifted with a history of strong goaltenders. Their importance can’t be overlooked in the team’s success. A small example: In the team’s 2017 championship win over Wisconsin, Clarkson had 20 shots on goal in a 3-0 win. To give her teammates that leeway, Tiley stopped all 41 of Wisconsin’s shots on net.

So, yeah, defense is important. 

For Clarkson, this strong defense has allowed the offense to play more freely and to flourish.

“Whenever you have a good goaltender, it allows you to play a little bit more free,” Desrosiers said. “It allows us to play a little more aggressive and push the pace a little more. If we're playing good defensively, that allows us to get control of the puck a little quicker, and start transitioning to offense a little bit quicker."

MORE: Five members to be inducted into U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame 

Expect the unexpected

Clarkson, ranked third in the latest poll, has a chance this season to become the first team to three-peat since Minnesota-Duluth did so in the Women's Frozen Four's first three years (2001-03). How does a team that’s already seen so much success prepare for that? At this point, it’s all in the details.

"Our biggest goal is just to focus on the little things,” senior captain Cassidy Vinkle said. “Block shots, takeaways — just some things on the ice that aren't always the goals and the assists. Big back-checks, and things like that, that's what we try to celebrate and focus on because it leads to the big things.”

“We know we're going to get every team's best," Desrosiers added. "We know that we're going to have to step up to that challenge. To me, that's a privilege to have that target on your back. Everyone wanting to play well against you and everyone wanting to beat the defending national champions.”

This past month, the Golden Knights raised the team's second banner in as many years and received their championship rings in front of a record-setting crowd of 2,766 at Cheel Arena.

Clarkson championship rings
Clarkson raises its banner, and new rings
Clarkson players check out their new hardware


Callan Sheridan is a graduate of Saint Peter's University and has produced content for The Press Enterprise, the American Junior Golf Association and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Follow her on twitter at @calsh_13.