After three straight Frozen Four appearances, women's hockey senior leaders exit the ice
It is the afternoon of March 15, the day before the Cornell women's hockey team is set to take on Minnesota in the 2012 Frozen Four. Head coach Doug Derraugh sits on a press conference stage in Duluth with senior captains Rebecca Johnston, Catherine White and Chelsea Karpenko.
A reporter asks: How much of an impact has this senior class had on the Cornell women's hockey program?
It's a familiar question for Derraugh and his players, and one that makes sense: After all, before this senior class came to Ithaca, the Big Red had not finished above .500 since the 1989 season.
And now here they sat, in the media spotlight at their third consecutive Frozen Four, following their second consecutive 30-win season. Johnston, who was the first major recruit to come to Cornell, will graduate as the team's fifth-leading scorer of all time and the ECAC Hockey Player of the Year. White will be the sixth-leading scorer in Big Red women's hockey history.
The women's hockey team's turnaround in the last five years -- from national afterthought to national powerhouse -- has been dramatic. But besides the program changing, this core group of seniors has changed, too.
"We all came from strong programs, winning programs, and getting here we almost had to start over," Karpenko said. "I mean, we sort of knew what we were getting ourselves into, but it was a shock once we got here. So really for the last four years, having to inch and claw for everything we got has taught us to appreciate all the good things coming our way now and to really be proud of the foundation we built here."
White echoed those thoughts.
"We all wanted that challenge; we all knew going to Cornell we weren't going to a successful hockey program," she said. "We saw that potential, and we saw that challenge, and we wanted to be a part of it."
And a foundation they built. The Big Red claimed its third straight Ivy League and ECAC Hockey regular season championships this year. Karpenko was named the league's Best Defensive Forward, while Johnston earned Player of the Year honors. Younger players such as Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award nominee Brianne Jenner '14 and ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year Jillian Saulnier '15 are continuing to build up from that foundation.
The day after the press conference, Cornell played in its national semifinal against Minnesota in Duluth's AMSOIL Arena. The game did not go the way the Big Red had planned. Minnesota jumped out to a 2-0 lead on first-period power play goals and held on for a 3-1 win, ending Cornell's season. Sophomore defenseman Alyssa Gagliardi scored a Cornell goal in the second period, but an empty-netter sealed the victory for the eventual national champion Gophers.
That night, more Cornell players sat in front of the assembled media. Johnston and senior goalie Amanda Mazzotta answered questions, their hockey careers having just ended minutes earlier.
But it was Derraugh who spoke up first to praise this program-changing senior class.
"When they first came in, this was a team that had been last in the Ivy League for a long time, and they've completely changed our culture, changed our program," he said. "I am indebted to this senior class."
The players will also take plenty of life lessons away from their time on East Hill. Plenty of memories, too.
"It's definitely been four awesome years," Mazzotta said. "And it didn't really end the way we wanted, but we can't say that we didn't have a great go."