While the spring semester is just beginning, for six Falcon athletic teams, their seasons are coming to a close. The women’s hockey team continues to be a national powerhouse, while the men’s hockey team, along with women’s basketball, will be upset minded during the first round of playoffs.
The men’s and women’s swim and dive teams will be aiming for personal and school records as they compete in the WIAC Championships, and the men’s basketball team will be looking to build for next year after falling from WIAC tournament champions last year, to possibly not even making the WIAC tournament this year.
The women’s hockey team is ranked No. 5 in the country according to the Feb. 4 U.S. College Hockey Online (USCHO) poll. With a 14-4-2 overall record, the Falcons have garnered national attention by making an appearance in the NCAA tournament for the past four seasons. But for the past three seasons the Falcons have fallen in the NCAA quarterfinals to a familiar foe: Gustavus Adolphus. Gustavus has beaten the Falcons twice already this season, but both contests were decided by one goal.
However, 14th-year coach Joe Cranston said his team is playing their best hockey since the start after break.
“I think down the stretch you will see more consistency with every shift, every period and every game. We are moving better than any team that I have coached over the last 14 years, and that is very important,” Cranston said. “I think we are going to be a tough team to beat, the girls know it, and we are confident going in to the last part of the season and in to the playoffs.”
Cranston has every reason to be confident, as the Falcons are not only in first place in the NCHA conference, but are also first in goals scored and goals against, as well as first in the power play and penalty kill. During their past six games they have gone 6-0 while out-scoring their opponents 46-3.
UWRF has four games left at Hunt Arena, including a final regular season series with No. 7 Lake Forest on Feb. 16 and 17.
While the women’s team has been consistently at the top of the standings all season, the men’s hockey team has been dubbed “wildly inconsistent” by head coach Steve Freeman. The potential to skate with the best in the nation is there, said Freeman, but it is just a matter of which Falcon hockey team shows up on any given night.
This comes to no surprise to Freeman, the winningest coach in UWRF’s storied program’s history, as the NCHA has two teams ranked nationally and two more, including the Falcons, who received votes but were just shy of making the top 15. Freeman won his 300th career game with the team’s 3-1 victory over St. John’s on Jan. 5.
The Falcons have an 11-9-3 record heading into the final weekend of the regular season as they travel to take on St. Scholastica and UW-Superior Feb. 8 and 9. Adam Cardwell leads the Falcons with 13 goals this season.
The Falcons are coming off a season where they were upset by UW-Eau Claire in the first round of the NCHA playoffs after tying for second in the regular season and winning the WIAC title a year ago. But now, Eau Claire has clinched the NCHA and WIAC titles and the Falcons will be looking for revenge should they meet in the postseason.
“We can beat anyone on any given night,” Freeman said. “The playoffs make for a great atmosphere because it is where mistakes are heightened and great performances are remembered.”
The women’s basketball team is coming off an appearance in the NCAA tournament a season ago. But after losing four starters from last season, the Falcons carry a young roster. This has led to a roller-coaster season, according to the WIAC standings, but the Falcons believe that as the postseason nears the team has seen improvements.
“The season has gone well so far,” said Brittany Gregorich. “Our record may not show it, but we have been in every game. We are pretty young, so every practice and game has been important in order to become a better team. Everyone is very eager to learn and get better which will help the program in the long run.”
If the playoffs started today, the Falcons would be the No. 5 seed in the six-team tournament with a 7-6 WIAC record and 13-9 overall record.
Coach Cindy Holbrook said the Falcons will play to their strengths, which includes rebounding in the close games.
“Obviously we’d like to win every game and will fight like crazy to do that,” Holbrook added. “We have to take care of the things we can control and the results will fall where they fall. We’ve been a great rebounding team all year and we have to really commit to that right now. Our seniors have done a great job leading our team. Brittany Gregorich is the best rebounder in the WIAC just by working her tail off, and she’s had an unbelievable season,” Holbrook said.
Gregorich leads the entire WIAC in rebounds, averaging 10.3 per game. The next highest was 7.6 from an Eau Claire player, a team which the Falcons just beat on Feb. 2.
The Falcons will close out the regular season with a trip to first place UW-Whitewater on Feb. 16.
Last season UWRF men’s basketball made history by winning their first-ever WIAC Tournament Championship by defeating the eventual nation-champions, UW-Whitewater.
But after losing four starters like the women’s team and having their only returning starter Ollie White having to declare a medical red shirt to end his season, the Falcons have struggled to win games in a tough conference.
The Falcons are 8-14 overall and 3-10 in the WIAC. A win over Eau Claire on Feb. 2 pulled the Falcons out of last place in the conference. With only three WIAC games remaining, UWRF will have to fight to even make the WIAC tournament as only the top six teams out of the nine advance.
“Obviously, the season has not gone as planned,” said head coach Jeff Berkof. “But, with two weeks to go, we continue to try and get better each day and look forward to getting a few more wins like we did this past Saturday versus Eau Claire. We have been playing better of late and it’s nice to see the improvement. Finishing the season strong can only help the program for next year.”
One of the bright spots for the Falcons has been the improved play of sophomore guard Arik Smith. Smith leads the team by averaging 14 points per game. He had career-high 28 points against UW-Platteville on Jan. 26. Smith said that despite the disappointments, he sees the team making strides.
“The season isn’t going as planned, but as a young team we have taken many positive steps forward and are steadily improving with every practice,” Smith said.
Men’s swim and dive
The men’s swim and dive team takes a 5-2 record into the WIAC Championships held in Brown Deer, Wis., Feb. 14-16.
While last year’s squad placed sixth at the WIAC Championships, this year’s record-breaking team is looking forward to improving their standing among the league’s elite.
Victor Lara, a freshman swimmer from Sao Paulo, Brazil, has been one of the team’s top competitors. In last week’s duel meet at Hamline, Lara placed first in four different events, in the 200-medley relay, 50 and 100 freestyle, and 200 IM. He believes his team will reach the podium come the conference championships.
“The swim team is probably the strongest and largest group of recent years. This season, the swimmers are really focused on achieving their personal bests times and are also helping each other in the relay’s events,” said Lara. “Furthermore, our team had an improvement every swim meet, dropping a lot of seconds on each of their events.”
David Zaske has also made great strides for the Falcons. Against Hamline he made school history in the 100 and 200 breaststroke. His time of 1:03.93 in the 100 was the 10th best time in school history and his time of 2:19.42 in the 200 was the eighth best.
The Falcons’ toughest competitors may by UW-Stevens Point who has won the WIAC for 13 consecutive seasons, according the WIAC website.
Women’s swim and dive
The women’s swim and dive team is fresh off a 154-117 victory over Hamline and is looking to carry that momentum into the WIAC Championships Feb. 14-16 in Brown Deer, Wis., where they, too, will be looking to improve on last year’s sixth place performance.
Although their record stands at an even 4-4, senior Hannah Wiseman said the secret to the team’s success has been the chemistry of the team.
“The team this year is once again a very close-knit group of people that support one another in triumphs and hard times. We have all worked very hard this season in our practices, weight lifting and meets and it is really exciting to see all of that hard work pay off,” Wiseman said.
That hard work has paid off for Wiseman as she has led the Falcons in every meet this season, including their most recent meet against Hamline.
Wiseman placed first in the 500 free with a time of 5:34.93, nine seconds ahead of her next opponent, and in the 1650 free, with a time of 19:08.89, to earn nine points each race for the Falcons. Her time in the 500 was the ninth best time in school history and her time in the 1650 was the seventh.
In the WIAC Championship, the Falcons will be looking to dethrone the defending WIAC Champions: UW-La Crosse.
No matter where the Falcons are ranked or placed in the standings, any sports fan knows that once the playoffs come, anything can happen. With these six Falcon athletic teams preparing for the biggest stage of their collegiate careers, the Falcons will be matched against the best Division III has to offer and like coach Freeman said, the playoffs are where “mistakes are heightened and great performances are remembered.”