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Falcons earn NCAA berth with finals win against Stevens Point

March 1, 2009

There will be another banner to hang from the rafters of Hunt Arena as the No. 7 ranked UW-River Falls women’s hockey team defeated No.10 UW-Stevens Point 5-3 in the finals of the NCHA O’Brien Cup.

The victory guarantees the Falcons a spot in the NCAA tournament which begins on March 13.

For the Falcons, it is their first O’Brien Cup in six years and goalie Cassi Campbell, who finished the game with 29 saves, said it is a great feeling.

“Feels absolutely amazing,” she said. “All of our hard work has paid off and there is proof right there.”

Junior co-captain Stefanie Schmitz said it is one of the best moments of her life.
“Awesome. Probably the best feeling ever,” she said. “We worked really hard and took it to them basically.”

For Jamie Briski, who scored a shorthanded goal less than four minutes into the third period to give the Falcons a 3-1 lead, the championship is deserving from all the hard work put in this year.
“Amazing,” she said. “We put in a lot of hard work and we deserve it.”

For Falcon Head Coach Joe Cranston, this is his third playoff championship in 10 seasons. His first season at the helm, the Falcons went 3-15-0, but now has coached teams that have put up six banners.

Cranston was named 2009 NCHA Coach of the Year. He also won the award in 2007.

UWRF had a couple of two goal leads in the third period, but Stevens Point, which played in its third game in as many days, would not go away and continued to apply pressure in the Falcons zone.

“We score and are up by a couple, then Stevens Point would run out of energy, but would come back,” Cranston said. “I don’t know where they found the energy, but they had us on our heels at the end.”

None of the goals that were scored on Sunday beat the goalies clean, as both played stellar. The aforementioned Campbell did not have a chance to stop any of the Pointers shots and d’Andra Phillips made the Falcons earn each goal they scored.

“Both goalies were awesome tonight,” Cranston said. “They made great saves and were just huge.”

With Campbell nursing an injured knee for much of the second half of the season, Briski said she had no idea her teammate could make the stops she did.

“I don’t know where she got those moves, but she played so good,” Briski said of Campbell’s performance. “She was unbelievable.”

Schmitz added that goalies are on top of their games when goals were scored the way they were on Sunday.

“When you have to score on the second or third shot you know the goalies are playing good,” she said. “Both goalies played unbelievable.”

After Briski’s goal the Pointers took control of the game and had the puck in the Falcons zone for most of the middle part of the third period.

With Stevens Point being down, Campbell said UWRF knew the Pointers would not go down easy.

“We knew that they were going to come out with a lot of pressure,” she said. “We just had to work on blocking shots and not let them get to the net.”

When the Pointers were able cut the Falcon lead to 4-3, UWRF was content with dumping the puck in deep and kept its lines on the ice for less than a minute to keep fresh skaters on the ice.

“Joe [Cranston] just told us to dump the puck in and make them go get it and for us, we were able to change our lines and have fresh legs,” Briski said. “It worked really well for us. We even work on that in practice, just dumping the puck in and changing our lines.”

Jessica Thompson’s goal midway through the third period gave the Falcons a 4-2 lead and was the eventual game winner. Thompson won the faceoff to defenseman Heather Horgan, who unleashed a slap shot.

Phillips made the save, but was unable to stop Thompson’s shot as she was able to put it in while lying on the ice after being tied up after the faceoff and gave the Falcons the goal they needed to lock up the championship.

“Every goal was big,” Cranston said. “Whenever a team got one, they had the momentum for a while.”

Thompson’s ninth goal of the year happened 27 seconds after the Pointers cut the lead to one after Michelle Sosnowski took the puck from behind the UWRF net and was able to find the back of the net from the right faceoff dot. Campbell was screened as Stevens Point was crashing several players to the net.

In the first period it was Stevens Point that drew first blood.

Falcons defenseman Lauren Conrad, who was playing with an injured arm, took a roughing penalty after punching a Pointer forward in the face.

Stevens Point’s Dana Carothers answered 1 minute, 19 seconds into the penalty.

She buried a rebound in front of the net after Nicole Grossmann took a shot from the left faceoff dot. It was Carothers 19th goal of the year and the Pointers had a 1-0 lead going into the second period.

It was not until late in the second period that the Falcons got on the board.

Breanne Hrabe unleashed a one-timer from the blue line and Katie Flanagan was able to redirect the puck past Phillips, who was then out of position as she was trying to make the save on Hrabe’s shot.

Conrad made up for her penalty and put away a rebound in a wide open net, with 19 seconds to play in the second, as Phillips had to make a save on Brittany Erickson’s shot from the bottom of the right faceoff circle.

“She scored a goal by just driving to the net,” Cranston said. “She was playing with one good arm all day. She won all the battles on the boards for us and just had a great game for us.”
Early in the third, Schmitz was called for holding deep in the Falcons zone.

Stevens Point won the faceoff, but had its shot blocked and Briski skated down the left wing boards with the puck. She fired a shot on goal and with Ashly Berner breaking toward the net for the rebound, the Pointers defensemen went to cover her, but the puck squirted to an open Briski fired the puck top-shelf to beat Phillips for her 15th goal of the year.

“I took a shot and it wasn’t the best shot,” Briski admitted. “Ashly [Berner] was going to the net so they covered her and the puck came to me. The goalie went down and I just shot it at the top of the net. It might have been lucky, but it’s a goal.”

Sosnowski scored midway through the third and Thompson scored right after her to put the Falcon lead back to two goals.

Sarah Phillips scored 14 minutes, 32 seconds into the period to make the score 4-3. Her shot came from the blue line and the puck knuckled toward the net and got past Campbell, who appeared to have been screened again.

Stevens Point had control of the game from there, but was unable to get another puck past Campbell, who made her biggest save with just under four minutes to play.

She made a save, but was out of position for a rebound. Campbell then sprawled to her right, robbing a Pointer forward of a tying goal.

Cranston sent out his top line of Schmitz-Thompson-Abby Sunderman, known mostly for their goal scoring.

This time, their job was to get the puck out of the zone and get pressure off of Campbell, who faced 11 shots in the final period, and accomplished their mission.

“We threw them out there, got the puck out of the zone and gained 200 feet of ice,” Cranston said. “They played awesome today.”

With 1 minute, 20 second left in regulation, Stevens Point pulled Phillips for the extra attacker.

The Falcons made it difficult for the Pointers to get the puck in their zone and for the most part kept the puck in Stevens Point’s end of the rink.

Thompson was able to get possession of the puck and gain the Pointer zone. She dropped a pass to Sunderman, who was at the blue line and buried a slap shot for the final tally of the night.

For Cranston, the championship is long overdue.

“Feels great. It’s just got to sink in here a little bit,” he said. “It’s been too long, six years, so it feels good.

The last time the Falcons were in the NCAA tournament was in 2003 when it made it to the women’s NCAA Frozen Four after beating the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) in the first round 5-1.

They lost to eventual national champions Elmira College (N.Y) in the national semifinals 2-1.

On Saturday UWRF beat Lake Forest College (Ill.) 6-2 in the semifinals to advance to this year’s O’Brien Cup finals.

Berner, Erickson, Ally Foley and Emma Nordness all had a goal and an assist in the game.

UWRF will not play until March 13 or 14, which is the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. Neither the rest of the teams nor the site of the tournament has been determined.