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Women’s hockey wins fourth consecutive WIAC postseason title

March 8, 2017

The Falcons fought back to take their fourth consecutive O’Brien Cup on Saturday, knocking off UW-Eau Claire 3-2 in overtime to collect another WIAC postseason title.

This win solidified a place for UW-River Falls in the NCAA tournament, but by no means did it come easy. The 26-2 Falcons had already fallen to the Blugolds twice this season, and trailed in all three meetings.

The same story seemed bound to play out on Saturday, with UW-Eau Claire scoring the only goal of the first two periods on the power play. The Blugolds took advantage of a slashing penalty on Julia Stelljes to get a goal with three minutes remaining in the first period and go up 1-0.

“Eau Claire is a team that never gives up and works really hard as a team. Every one of their players is always giving it their all and if we make one mental lapse they capitalize,” senior defenseman Paige Johnson said.

It took until the third period for the Falcons to even up the game on the scoreboard. Carly Moran added her 21st goal of the season only three minutes into the period to bring some life back into Hunt Arena. The lead wouldn’t last long, with the Blugolds taking advantage on another power play goal midway through the third period.

The 2-1 Eau Claire lead looked like it might be the final result, but the Falcons weren’t going to go away without a fight. Carina Randazzo buried a shot with only three minutes remaining, forcing the first overtime in a game this season for UWRF.

“I was 100 percent confident we could [win the game] once we scored that tying goal,” goalie Angie Hall said. “We were outplaying them and in control for most of the game. We knew it was going to happen, and I was confident we would be able to score.”

It came down to the wire, but the Falcons managed to come out on top. Dani Sibley sent a pass to Moran that she put in the back of the net to take the win 3-2 and clinch another title.

“We didn’t get frustrated, because we’ve played from behind every time against them. We had the confidence and we kept working hard. We got a few bounces at the end of the game to get the W,” Head Coach Joe Cranston said.

Another big aspect of the game was the play of the goaltenders. All-WIAC goalie Hall had another strong performance in the net, but was almost evenly matched by the play of Blugolds goalie Erin Conolly.

“[Eau Claire] has a really good freshman goalie. On breakaways and power plays, she comes up with amazing saves to stop them. The team will have to figure out how to get some pucks past her in the future,” Johnson said.

Hall described it as being difficult to play in the net during these types of games. When she’s not seeing consistent shots from the other team, she must be ready for any defensive breakdown or penalty to stay sharp and focused. This was especially true on Saturday, when UWRF outshot Eau Claire 40-21.

UWRF has now won the title in all four years of existence for WIAC hockey. Adding four regular season titles and four postseason titles means the seniors on this team have had a clean sweep of the WIAC in their respective careers.

The scoring of Sibley and Moran has also been incredible this year, with each eclipsing the previous school record of 50 points in a season. But players and coaches say that’s not what really makes the biggest difference.

“It’s never even been close to having two players who have had the scoring record. A big part of that is Hailey Herdine, who has the highest hockey IQ on our team. When you put her between those two players, they all complement each other very well,” Cranston said.

“I think we’re really close as a team, and we’re all in it together. We’ve done a good job this year of making the freshmen feel comfortable and feel like they’re just as important as the seniors, juniors and sophomores. Now that everyone has had numerous games under their belt, we are just a team and we all have the same responsibilities,” Hall said.

This team atmosphere has pushed the Falcons into their ninth consecutive NCAA tournament, where they will face Gustavus. UWRF beat the Gusties 3-0 and 4-1 earlier in the year, but that doesn’t mean they’re to be taken lightly during the postseason.

“They’re really a fast team and one of the only teams that can outskate us. They’ve been to a lot of NCAA games in their program history, so it should be a good game,” Cranston said.

From 2010-2013, UWRF lost to the Gusties in four consecutive NCAA first round matchups. While none of the current players were involved in those games, the history of a rivalry still runs deep.

“Gustavus is always a good team, and they always come at us hard,” Johnson said. “We’ve been matched up in this position before and been knocked out by one goal, so there’s kind of a feud between us. Beating them twice early [in the season] will make them hungry to beat us now, but the game is at home so the advantage is hopefully in our favor.”

The Falcons host Gustavus at Hunt Arena on Friday, March 10. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.