One side of the Division III bracket features three-time defending champions Plattsburgh facing off against a Norwich squad that’s making its third appearance at the final weekend in the past four seasons.
The other semifinal features an Adrian Bulldogs squad that’s never reached the semifinals against a Gustavus Adolphus squad that was the last team into the tournament this season.
With apologies to Plattsburgh and Norwich, we’re going to focus on the other two.
Adrian earned a berth into its first-ever NCAA D-III Championship, and compounded the victory by also earning the right to host.
The Bulldogs have just two losses this season. They won the NCHA regular season title for the third straight year and made history by becoming the first team in conference history to end the season without a loss or a tie.
It’s Adrian’s third trip to the NCAA tournament and the first time they’ve made it back-to-back, but they’ve never advanced out of the first round. They won in the final minute of the first overtime period over Elmira to get this far.
Seniors Kristin Lewicki, Kaylyn Schroka, and Sarah Sherub are the second, third, and fourth top scorers in the country. Setting records, making history, and now getting to play at home are the culmination of an incredible career.
“Knowing that this could’ve been our last game, we wanted to prove (to) everyone wrong and show that we could make it to the Frozen Four. We went into this game having confidence and knowing that we had to get that first goal and to keep pounding the offensive zone after that,” Lewicki.
The win and moving on were slow to feel real for senior goalie Gibson.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet (reaching and hosting the ‘final four’) but it’s just a huge wave of emotions; the best emotions possible because we came out on top.”
The high pressure of the game and the eventual win only serve to further prepare Adrian for their toughest test yet. Not only do they know have the confidence of having come away with the win, but they felt the pressure and came out above it. That the players were able to stay calm and focused should help them keep their poise as the pressure mounts.
NCHA coach of the year Chad Davis said the quarterfinal game was every bit as difficult as he thought it might be.
“Last Saturday’s game was everything I expected it to be We had to stay the course and keep pushing through until we were able to win in overtime. Going forward, we will be prepared having gone through those different situations that occurred throughout the game.”
Though there’s now pressure to win on home ice and advance further, Davis said the team is doing its best to stay in the moment and enjoy every bit of it. The Bulldogs have been working toward this goal all season — to be part of the final four teams, to host — and they don’t intend to take any bit of it for granted, but they also don’t plan to only be happy to be there.
“We know it’s a special time and want to embrace it; we know we have a lot of work ahead of us this weekend and are preparing to tackle it,” said Davis. “The state of our team heading into the final four is a team that has a clear vision on where we want to be. We don’t want to just host the party, we want to be part of it.”
Gustavus Adolphus completed a huge upset Friday night when the Gusties knocked out No. 2 Wisconsin-River Falls.
Not only was Wis.-River Falls a huge favorite, but the Gusties hadn’t even played a game in two weeks. They were knocked out of the MIAC tournament early and had to keep practicing during the ensuing week on the chance they might receive one of the coveted pool C bids.
They had a rough end to the beginning of the season. They were 6-5-1 going into the holiday break and the final two losses came at the hand of Wis.-River Falls, but a winter break trip overseas not only helped bond the players off the ice, it improved their confidence on the ice. When they came back, they went undefeated in 13 straight before losing in the MIAC semifinals.
It’s been a roller coaster ride for the Gusties, but they gave themselves every opportunity to play in the tournament with that incredible second-half tear.
Coach Mike Carroll admitted after Friday’s quarterfinal win that he was just hoping his team could hang on through the opening minutes while they tried to get themselves back up to speed. Despite not playing particularly well in the first period, the Gusties took a one-goal game and Carroll said after the game that he thought that ending the first period with a lead despite getting just four shots on goal was important.
The team seems to be taking as much of a laid-back approach to the postseason as possible. They’ve continued to do things they weren’t supposed to do, so they’re kind of just rolling with it and looking at everything as a new opportunity. They’re embracing their underdog status and really, they have nothing to lose.
“No one in our locker room has been in this situation,” said Carroll. “If we play like we did in the third period, I like our chances against any team. We can’t be satisfied. We’ve got a chance. We’re living another week. I know we started dialing more in in the third period. It wasn’t pretty, but you could see that we had passion and heart and drive. If we were going to lose, it wasn’t going to be because of lack of effort. If we rally together, anything can happen.”