This weekend’s Frozen Four has the same teams as last year’s, but the path back hasn’t been smooth for any of them. Injuries are inevitable through the long college season, but each of the four teams suffered setbacks that had the opportunity to end their hopes for a national championship.
Overcoming adversity, proving people wrong, and making new history have all been on the agenda for these for teams. Through it all, each has leaned on a talented, strong, and dedicated senior class to help carry them to this point.
Boston College had a nearly perfect season last year before suffering the ultimate heartbreak in the national championship game. Many people were ready to write them off this season and that feeling compounded as injuries to their blue line piled up.
Early in the season, the team struggled to find their own equilibrium in a season that looked very different from the one they had the year before. While the younger players had a hard time moving on from losses after the abundance of last season, the upperclassmen helped keep them focused and steady — reminding them that a single loss is not the end of the world.
“Our team has great leadership; our seniors and captains have been through a lot with our program, a lot of successes with our program,” said coach Katie Crowley. “They have really used that to make our team better this year; used that to become better players and help the younger players get better and that’s helped us become more successful.”
Even as the Eagles navigated their vastly different season, they also learned to trust each other and look to the teammates for strength. Crowley sees a maturity in her players that she thinks comes from the adversity they faced this season.
“We went through some ups and downs,” she said. “They matured and became a team. They really leaned on each other and I think that was key. They leaned on each other and were able to play more as a group and more as a unit and play together.”
Though the teams are the same, the matchups are different. BC comes in as the four seed, not the favorite, and they face with a Wisconsin team that has had very few stumbles this season.
Though maybe not as outwardly obvious, the Badgers went through some difficult times this season, as well. From rallying around a teammate who lost a family member to concern over whether Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist Ann-Renée Desbiens’ injuries would be long-lasting, Wisconsin has had its own set of adversity.
Though not in the same arena, the Badgers are also returning back to a city many of them would rather forget. They canceled the second game in a series with Lindenwood in January after most of the players experienced a fairly severe form of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty ice resurfacer.
The Badgers have been eliminated from the Frozen Four in the semifinal round by Minnesota in each of the past three years. No matter what happens, Friday will be a departure from the norm for Wisconsin.
Coach Mark Johnson isn’t one for looking ahead nor for changing up the team’s routine, regardless of the opponent. So while the number one team is looking for more than the semifinals, Johnson said he was just happy to be practicing this week — only four teams had that privilege, after all. Other than trying to organize all the many details of a trip to the Frozen Four, he didn’t expect things to be much different.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’ve been together since early September. A lot of players individually and the team has gotten better. The play has been elevated.”
Wisconsin has held the top spot in the country all season, and with that comes both pressure and expectations. On the whole, the coaching staff is with the team far less than the players are around each other. Johnson said that’s why having great captains and senior leadership is so crucial to a team’s success — they have to handle the pressure and responsibility of guiding the team at all times.
“Our leadership’s been very solid, they’ve had some great learning experiences throughout this season,” said Johnson. “The seniors have had some difficult learning experience the last three years, and so they’re in a good place, I’m excited for them, and we get an opportunity to play another game, which is the most exciting part of this whole thing.”
The Badgers are lucky to have seniors anchoring their defense — Mellissa Channell and Jenny Ryan are their top defensive line and Desbiens has set a new standard for women’s college goalkeeping. Having those three in the back gives the team a tremendous amount of confidence and provides a freedom for the forwards to play more free.
“Especially this season, (Ryan and Channell have) logged a lot of minutes in games, and it’s almost like having a security blanket,” said Johnson. “They generally play against the other teams’ best offensive players, and they get challenged quite a bit, but the nice thing about those two is that they have that poise, that composure when they get the puck.”
The Clarkson Golden Knights have faced Minnesota in the Frozen Four before — and won. The 2014 national champions are heading into a rematch that the Gophers are certainly eager for, but coach Matt Desrosiers said he and his team can’t focus too much on who the opponent is or what they’re going to do. They just plan to focus on themselves and what they do best and not spend too much time worrying about the opponent.
“At this point in the season, you have to take notice on a few of the things your opponents are doing, but for the most part you’re just trying to focus on bringing your team’s best and performing to the top level that you possibly can,” he said.
When Clarkson won that title, the Golden Knights were still a bit of an upstart. Now, three years later, the program has become established as one of the top ones in the country and a perennial favorite. Even with some tough, close games this season, the Golden Knights are prepared and ready for the NCAA tournament.
“This team is confident in their abilities and they’ve come together as a team throughout the year,” said Desrosiers. “They want to do great things for each other and they know that they’re going to be playing some more difficult opponents than we have in the latter half of the season and they’ve stepped up to the challenge.”
Certainly the Golden Knights want more than recognition this weekend, but their return to the Frozen Four is a reinforcement of the progress of the program and the consistency they’ve been able to have. Elevating a program to elite status takes a lot of hard work from everyone involved year after year, and Clarkson’s presence is a validation of what they’ve all done in their careers.
There are few fans that can muster up a lot of sympathy for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, despite the rough season they’ve had. It speaks to the strength, composure, and fight in the student-athletes at Minnesota that they find themselves in the Frozen Four.
All of the Gophers’ adversity comes with a need for perspective, but still, relative to their recent success and dominance, it wasn’t a great season for Minnesota. They headed into the winter break following an 8-2 loss to Wisconsin and a 6-5 loss to Boston University and coach Brad Frost admitted that the team was facing a challenge, but even as his players struggled with the losses and figuring out their identity, Frost said they all leaned on each other and found a way to fight back.
“To hit a slump like we hit, that’s something that hadn’t happened in multiple years. It forced our team to really dig in a little bit. When you’re winning all the time, things never seem to be going wrong. Sometimes when you lose a game or two or three it seems like the world is caving in, which it isn’t either. It’s never as good as you think it is and it’s never as bad as you think it is. We just had to really as a staff try to keep the train on the tracks so to speak, get them believing in themselves and feeling confident about themselves and finding a way to get there in the end.”
It wasn’t an easy fight and he admits it took awhile for the team to find their comfort zone as lines were shuffled and reshuffled after injuries, but Frost said he’s proud of what his team showed about themselves.
One huge reason that the Gophers were able to make it through their slump is goalie Sidney Peters. Frost said he thought she turned a corner around February, though he wasn’t able to exactly put his finger on what changed, but Peters’ stellar play not only kept Minnesota in games while they fought to figure things out on the ice, she also earned and gave trust to her team, allowing them all to be more comfortable in their roles.
“She’s in a great zone right now where she just trusts in her ability. I think she’s proven to herself and to everyone else that she can play at an extremely high level and she can keep our team in games when we need her to,” he said.