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Conference title within reach for women’s hockey team

February 12, 2009

With the NCHA playoffs in two weeks, the No. 8 UW-River Falls women’s hockey is in control of the conference after a sweep against Concordia University-Wisconsin (CU) last weekend.

The Falcons 11-2-1 NCHA record (13-5-2 overall) has them in the top spot in the conference, ahead of UW-Stevens Point, which has played two more NCHA games than the Falcons.

“It’s nice being in the driver’s seat,” UWRF Head Coach Joe Cranston said. “We haven’t been in that position for a long time.”

The last time the Falcons won the regular season conference championship was the 2002-03 season, when they went 12-1-3 in the NCHA. It was also the last time UWRF won the conference playoffs when it beat UW-Superior 4-3 in the title game.

This season has been a perfect model of balance for UWRF.

Juniors Stefanie Schmitz and Abby Sunderman, along with sophomore Jamie Briski, are among the team leaders in goals, but the freshmen have come along and contributed to a team contending for the regular season title.

“I don’t think they realize how important they are to the team,” Schmitz said. “Every one of them plays and they had to step up this year and they have.”

Emma Nordness, a freshman who had a hat trick against CU last Friday, a 6-0 win for UWRF, said the mindset of the team has helped her and the rest of the Falcon freshmen.

“The game is a lot faster than high school,” she said. “We [freshmen] got used to the speed of the game and we have played really well with each other.”

The most recent goals Nordness has scored have been a joy, but also a relief, she said.

“It’s a lot of fun. I haven’t scored in a long time, so being able to put some away has been really exciting,” Nordness said.

With UWRF’s youth tallying as many goals as they have been, it has lead to more balanced scoring, which means the Falcons can have three or four lines that can score on a consistent basis.

“It’s huge,” Cranston said. “It doesn’t matter who I throw out there. We will have lines out there that can score and play well defensively.”

The Falcons have won four NCHA games by two goals or less this season and Cranston said the freshmen have been a large part of those wins.

“We’ve gotten some big goals from them all season,” Cranston said. “You look at it this way. If they don’t score those goals, we don’t win those games.”
UWRF is also one of the best when it comes to total team defense.

Its 1.90 goals allowed per game is second best in the conference, lead by the goalie tandem of sophomore Cassi Campbell and freshman Melissa Deardorff, both from Anchorage, Alaska.

After Campbell dislocated her patella in the closing seconds against UW-Eau Claire on Dec. 13, Cranston said he thought that might have been the last time she would be in a Falcon uniform, but a return to the lineup on Jan. 23 has put UWRF back in front.

“I thought she was done for the season or maybe her career,” Cranston said. “She brings more of a presence to the net. She sees a lot more pucks and has been a big part of our success.”

After winter break, UWRF lost three of its first four games with Campbell out and allowed three goals a game. Since Campbell’s return, the Falcons are 4-1-1.
Campbell and Deardorff are the walls of the defense, but they do not do it alone.

A team motto of “Play defense, before offense,” said by Schmitz, has been used put UWRF back in the national spotlight after the rough start after the winter break.

“We stress defense a lot in practice,” Schmitz said. “If you don’t play well in your zone, you are not going to win many games.”

The Falcons have clinched an NCHA playoff birth this season and have a two point lead in the conference standings with five regular season games remaining. Four are NCHA games.

Being the leaders of the conference has its perks, but Cranston said other teams will be out to get the Falcons.

“You realize that you have a big target on your back,” he said. “It’s good to know that you don’t have to worry about anybody else. Superior and Stevens Point, well, I don’t really care what happens with them anymore. It’s nice to have our team focused on what we need to do.”

Nordness agreed with her coach and said UWRF can not look too far ahead.

“We have to play period by period,” she said. “Can’t worry about anyone else.”

The skill level and work ethic of this year’s team could give the Falcons home ice advantage in the NCHA playoffs, which begin on Feb. 27.

Schmitz said it will take hard work and consistency on their part to bring home a conference title, but this season’s team has what it takes.

“This is the most skilled and hardest working team I have ever been on,” she said. “If we win it, it will be awesome. The first championship of my career and we get to have the playoffs here, which has the best facility in Div. III.”

UWRF’s next series is at Finlandia University (Mich.) this Friday and Saturday. If the Falcons sweep FU and Stevens Point loses one game against Lake Forest College (Ill.), they will win their second NCHA regular season title.