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Women Take Command

Domination of NCAA is more pronounced by women’s teams.

"Your goalie is unreal. She’s a Cyborg!”, an Ohio State fan said of SCSU goalie Sanni Ahola. (Photo courtesy of St. Cloud State)

As usual, there is a close relationship between the national collegiate hockey powers and the teams from the state of Minnesota. The Gophers, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato often are clustered at the top of the nation’s top 10 and make a run at the season-ending Frozen Four.

But the women’s representatives from Minnesota deserve to be recognized for their prominence, too. A look at the week before Christmas national rankings show that five of the top eight teams are from the WCHA, starting at the top:

1. Ohio State, 14-2
2. Minnesota, 13-2
3. Wisconsin 13-3
6. UMD, 10-5-1
8. St. Cloud State, 12-5

The 1-2-3 punch at the top had to survive the sort of upsets that never used to happen in the WCHA.

St. Cloud State, clearly the surprise of women’s college hockey this season, invaded Columbus and, after falling behind 1-0 in the first period, scored twice in the second period. Finnish import goaltender Sanni Ahola stifled the Buckeyes the rest of the way for a shocking 2-1 upset. Ohio Sate had lost only one game all season, and while everyone anticipated a tough game, nobody expected a Huskies win.

St. Cloud’s Addi Scribner said that after that upset, an Ohio State fan came up to her and said: “Your goalie is unreal. She’s a Cyborg!”

The Buckeyes came back in the second game and broke a 1-1 tie with four straight goals in the second period to gain a 6-2 victory and a split. While being upset by St. Cloud could have cost Ohio State the No. 1 ranking, it didn’t. That’s because No. 2 Wisconsin suffered a similar weekend, against Duluth.

UMD went to Wisconsin and lost 3-0, solidifying the Badgers position on Saturday. However, the Bulldogs battled the Badgers through two scoreless periods in their Sunday afternoon rematch, and were determined to make their effort stand up in the third. UMD won that second game 3-2 for the split. 

A victory by the Badgers would have elevated them back to the No. 1 ranking.

The upsets weren’t over when the weekend ended, though, because the Gophers had a one-game matchup Tuesday against St. Cloud State. Peyton Hemp gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead but Scribner tied the game in the second period. The game went to overtime and a shootout. Allie Franco’s shootout goal gave the Gophers, who came in on an eight-game winning streak, the extra WCHA point. 

But it seems there are no such things as upsets anymore in the WCHA. At least going into a frantic pre-holiday-break weekend that features Wisconsin at Minnesota, and UMD at St. Cloud State, with Bemidji State at St. Thomas for good measure among Minnesota’s teams.

Minnesota teams have always dominated with NCAA championships
For statistical evidence, it’s not as though the Minnesota teams and the West are just emerging on top. Go back to the year 2000-01, which was the first year the NCAA conducted a national tournament for women’s teams. In the first 13 years it was held, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota virtually owned the championship.

UMD won the first three NCAA titles, with spectacular players such as Jenny Schmidgall, Maria Rooth and Caroline Ouellette leading the way. Under Shannon Miller’s coaching, UMD won five championships in all, with the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2010 trophies still filling the school’s trophy case. Minnesota won championships in 2004, 2005, 2012 and 2013 — meaning that the Bulldogs and Gophers won nine of the first 13 NCAA women’s championships.

The other four titles were won by the emerging power at Wisconsin, meaning that those three WCHA teams won all of the first 13 women’s national championships. The Badgers won in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011, and their 2007 team went 36-1-4 to eclipse the 31-3-2 of UMD in 2003 and the 36-2-2 by the Gophers in 2005.

But in 2013, the Golden Gophers had a load of talent throughout their lineup and set the record for all time with a splendid 41-0-0 championship season.

It was the following year, in 2013-14, that Clarkson broke through and claimed the first NCAA title for women for the East, and Clarkson also won championships in 2017 and 2018. And that’s it. Only three times did a non-WCHA team win the title, and all three times it was Clarkson.

All NCAA tournaments took a year off during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. When they resumed, Mark Johnson led his Badgers back for their sixth championship, with Ohio State emerging to capture the 2022 title. Last spring, Wisconsin was a surprise winner of its seventh title, and the same WCHA teams seem clustered for another run this season.

St. Cloud State women marking their mark
But maybe there will be an additional team in the mix, after St. Cloud State pulled off the seemingly impossible task of upsetting Ohio State on the road and coming home to tie the Gophers. That takes care of the top two-ranked teams, and now they get to take on old rival UMD, which upset No. 3 Wisconsin.

The games at St. Cloud State’s Herb Brooks National Hockey Center are expected to be tight, low-scoring battles, because both teams have two outstanding goaltenders. UMD has record-setting Hailey MacLeod, who is setting records for goals-against and save percentage, alongside freshman Eve Gascon, from Montreal.

St. Cloud State has an interesting duo, with Ahola capturing the spotlight in net. She’s paired with Jojo Chobak, who spent a season at UMD before transferring to St. Cloud State because she had grown weary of backing up Swedish Olympic star Emma Soderberg, who decided to stay another year.

Both teams depend on depth, getting scoring from their three top lines, and four for St. Cloud State. Both play tough defensive hockey but with defensemen who can readily move up into the play to help the rush or fire lasers from the points.

“We hung our hats on being a tough defensive team last year,” said St. Cloud State coach Brian Idalski. “We haven’t changed that and still want to play tough defense, but we’ve added some new players and I think we’re capable of scoring more goals this year.

“Especially coming off two tough games at Ohio State, then tying the Gophers on Tuesday. We’re getting contributions from all four lines, and we’re approaching this weekend like we’re preparing for the playoffs.”

From Duluth’s end of the transition from last weekend’s upset to this weekend’s rivalry series, the sound was similar. Center Mannon McMahon praised third-line center Jenna Lawry, who was cool and poised as she scored the game-winner at Madison.

“It was super cool to see how Jenna and her line have stepped up, and now they’re being rewarded,” McMahon said. “A lot of us were disappointed at losing 3-0 in Saturday’s game, but we were confident enough to not let that happen again on Sunday.

“Our response from the first game to the second was what I was most proud of. Now we have to carry that through to St. Cloud. It’s going to be tough. They just don’t quit, and they love to battle.”

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