Amanda Ryder and the Falcon women’s hockey team are no strangers to success. But for Ryder, a senior captain, this year’s team is just getting started. That’s a terrifying thought for opposing teams as the Falcons have been ranked in the top 10 of the nation all year. But after consistently being ranked among the nation’s best, Ryder said the best is yet to come.
The UW-River Falls women’s hockey team won their third-straight Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) regular season conference title after a 5-0 victory over Lake Forest at Hunt Arena on Feb. 17.
The Falcons clinched the conference title on the final day of the regular season in a game they needed to win or tie over second-place Lake Forest. With the victory, the Falcons will now host the conference playoffs, the NCHA O’Brien Cup, with the winner of the tournament receiving the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Joe Cranston, who is in his 14th year as head coach, has guided the Falcons to five NCHA regular season titles, five NCHA tournament O’Brien Cup championships and five NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Frozen Four in 2009. Cranston has been with the women’s hockey team since its inception in 1999.
However, the only coach in UWRF’s women’s hockey history said this year’s team is his best team yet. That is a true testament to the strength of this year’s squad, ranked No. 6 in the nation, as Cranston coached the 2010-2011 Falcons to an undefeated regular season and a No. 1 ranking for most of the season.
“We’re a better team this year,” Cranston said. “We struggled early, but that helped us come out strong in the second half of the season.”
Before the end of 2012, the Falcons were 7-4-2 to start the season. Since then the Falcons have been on a tear, winning 11 of their last 12 games. During that stretch the Falcons had a 10-game winning streak before a 2-1 loss to Lake Forest on the second-to-last day of the regular season. The team enters the first round of NCHA playoffs with an 18-5-2 record, including a 9-3-1 record at home, according to the UWRF Athletic website.
Ryder was a freshman when the 2009 team made it to the national semifinals. “We got the taste of playing on the national level, and now it’s time to get back,” Ryder said.
The experience of playing on the national level and the urge to get back to the Frozen Four and even further, has the senior All-NCHA defenseman playing her best hockey of her career, according to Cranston.
“She’s been unbelievable,” Cranston said. “We don’t have a lot of depth on this year’s team, and the girls know that, but they also know they need to step it up every game and they have.”
Another player who is having a banner year is All-American Katie Batters. Batters, a junior, leads the Falcons with 17 goals on the season. Chloe Kinsel and Kait Mason lead the Falcons with 28 total points on the season with each scoring 16 goals and 12 assists. Mason came up in the clutch for the Falcons in the conference clinching game, scoring two goals in UWRF’s 5-0 victory.
Alyssa Jackson is a tri-captain alongside Ryder and Judy Daleiden. And like Ryder, Jackson knows that with the playoffs, also comes the perspective that their hockey days are coming to a close. But all three tri-captains agree that knowing each game could be their last, gives them extra incentive.
“Knowing that it (her hockey career) is coming to an end, it is more important, every shift and every practice to work harder,” Jackson said.
Daleiden concurs, and she added that knowing what the playoff atmosphere will be like will give this senior class and the entire Falcon roster an edge.
But the real secret to the team’s success can be summed up in wisdom one can only learn from experience.
“I’m a firm believer that if you work hard good things will happen to you,” Jackson said.
A true sentiment and legacy for a senior class that has seen that hard work come to fruition and that will leave the team positioned to replicate that success for years to come.
The first game of the NCHA O’Brien Cup tournament will be held at 7:05 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22, at Hunt Arena as the Falcons take on UW-Eau Claire. The two teams will meet in a series with the first team to three points advancing. A win earns two points, while a tie earns one. The Falcons tied the Blugolds in their two regular season meetings.