The UW-River Falls women’s hockey team, which enters the season ranked No. 6 nationally, is gearing up for another run at the national tournament.
The team finished with a 21-7-2 record last season, which was good enough to claim the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) regular season title. However, the Falcons lost in the NCHA conference tournament championship game, costing them an automatic berth in the national tournament. The team did, however, receive an at-large bid, something it will have to secure again this season.
“We’re going to have to win probably 22 games to get to the NCAA tournament. That’s a challenge, but we’ve done it the last few years so we just have to do it again.” said Head Coach Joe Cranston, who is in his 15th season as the Falcons’ coach. Cranston also has the most victories of any women’s hockey coach in the WIAC with 238.
UWRF hockey will now play in the WIAC after the WIAC schools split from the NCHA. The WIAC only has four women’s hockey teams, which means each school will have to face each other four times during the season. The Falcons will also face more teams from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) this season as well.
“We are in a new conference and our schedule is a lot tougher. I’m excited to see how we match up against some of the better MIAC teams,” said senior forward Brook Story.
The winner of the four team WIAC does not receive an automatic bid into the national tournament. A conference needs to have at least seven teams to receive an automatic bid.
“Our strength of schedule will be better, and that makes us a better team in the end,” Cranston said. “We don’t play weak teams anymore. Every game we play, we could lose.”
The Falcons will be aiming higher than simply qualifying for the national tournament, though.
“I think last year was as good of a team as I’ve ever had here, and I really think this team will be a step above that one,” Cranston said. “We went and watched the Frozen Four last year in Superior, and we could have beaten any team up there. That’s our goal is to ultimately to get to the Frozen Four and have a chance to win a national championship.”
The Falcons will face two teams this season which are currently ranked by the NCAA: UW-Superior, No. 10, and Gustavus Adolphus College, No. 4.
The Falcons have played Gustavus Adolphus five times in a row in the national tournament. They have lost the last four times.
“That’s our biggest rivalry. That’s always the most talked about, and we just have to get ready for that,” Cranston said. “They were undefeated last year and we lost three games to them by one goal and played right with them.”
This year’s squad will be led by seniors Ashley Kuechle, Katie Batters, Kait Mason and Story. Both Batters and Mason were named American Collegiate Hockey Association All-Americans after last year. Mason was a first team All-American, while Batters was second team.
Last season Mason became the program’s all-time leading scorer, while Batters set the school record for goals in a single season with 21.
“I think those three (Mason, Batters and Story) are as good of senior forwards playing anywhere in the country,” Cranston said.
Additionally, the Falcons will have eight new faces on the ice this season, according to the UWRF athletic website. The team only graduated four seniors from last year’s team, one of which was first team All-American Amanda Ryder.
“Amanda Ryder was a big loss because she was an All-American. We have a couple defensemen to take her place,” Cranston said. “It will give us some more depth.”
Story agreed that filling the holes left by the four seniors who graduated will be difficult, but the team is prepared to step up in their place.
“We lost a talented group of seniors that brought a lot to the squad,” Story said. “We just have to all be on our best game this year, and if we do that we will be successful.”
The Falcons open their season at 7 p.m., on Friday, Nov. 1, at Bethel University. UWRF will play its first home game the next day, also against Bethel, at 2:05 p.m., at Hunt Arena. The Falcons have a 13-0-2 all-time record against Bethel.