A New York state of mind
The UW-River Falls women's hockey team will make the longest road trip in its four-year history this weekend. And if all goes well, it will return from New York State with a national championship.
The Falcons, ranked sixth in the final USCHO Division III poll, will face top-ranked and defending national champion Elmira College in an NCAA Division III semifinal game Friday in Elmira, N. Y. Friday's other semifinal will be between second-ranked Manhattenville (N. Y.) and fourth-ranked Bowdoin (Maine). The winners will face off Saturday in Elmira for the national championship.
The Falcons reached the Frozen Four by exploding for five unanswered goals in a 5-1 win over St. Thomas Friday night at Hunt Arena.
"We couldn't be more excited about going to New York to represent the West," head coach Joe Cranston said. "I could tell by our practice today (Monday) that the girls are not just happy to be going. We are looking at going out there and giving it everything we have and finishing strong."
The Falcons proved they could finish strong after falling behind 1-0 to St. Thomas. The Tommies jumped on the board with the only goal of the first period by Tomery Stolz just under three minutes before the first intermission. But the Falcons scored four times in the second and added a power-play goal with just under four minutes left in the game to post the 5-1 win.
Cranston said nobody on the Falcons panicked after St. Thomas took a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
"Giving up a goal and being down 1-0 after the first was the best thing that could have happened to us," he said. "We had three weeks of practice to get ready for that game and we saw the mistakes that we made that led up to their goal. We made the adjustments and shut them down after that."
Lisa McGuire got things going for River Falls with her sixth goal of the season two minutes into the second period with assists from Tiff Stencil and Mandy Stokes. The same three combined for what proved to be the game winning goal at the 6:56 mark with Stencil scoring her second goal of the year with assists from McGuire and Stokes.
The Falcons made it a 3-1 game less than a minute later on a goal by Leah Baron, her fifth of the season, with an assist from Megan Wahlstrom-Ramler. Ali Slinden then made it 4-1 in favor of the Falcons with a power-play goal at the 16:22 mark with Jodi Hensch and Lindsy Carlson assisting. Slinden's goal was her team-leading 19th of the season.
In the third period, Carlson scored a power-play goal with 4:50 left with Jenny Conzemius getting the lone assist. It was Carlson's eighth tally of the year.
Falcon goalie Marlene Yaeger made 17 saves in the win. St. Thomas starting goalie, Danielle Mikolai made 21 saves in two periods of action while Becky Kilpatrick stopped seven shots in the third period. St. Thomas ended the season with a 19-7-2 record.
"It was a great atmosphere at Hunt Arena," Cranston said about the over 600 fans in attendance. "I was extremely happy with the support."
The Falcons, 20-4-4 this season, now face the task of unseating the only national champion NCAA Division III women's hockey has ever known. Elmira won the national title last year in the first year of the tournament's existence and earned the right to host this year's Frozen Four by virtue of its 21-4-2 record and No. 1 ranking in the USCHO poll.
"We don't know much about the other teams in the tournament, except that they are all very good, but you would expect that at a Frozen Four," Cranston said. "Our only real comparison is that we played Bowdoin last year and lost in overtime."
The Falcons and Elmira will face off at 6:30 p.m. (CST) Friday in the second game of the NCAA semifinal doubleheader. Manhattenville (25-3-0) and Bowdoin (21-1-3) will play the early game at 3:30 p.m. On Saturday a third place game will be played at 3 p.m. followed by the championship game at 6:30 p.m.
"If we don't come home with the national championship it won't be because of a lack of effort," Cranston said. "Our goal is to outwork every team in the tournament. That's what got us this far and that's what's going to carry us the rest of the way.
"I could not be more proud of this team and its work ethic and commitment," he added.
Elmira, N. Y. is located about 60 miles west of Binghamton, N. Y., 230 miles northwest of New York City.