Women’s hockey reflects on ‘rebuilding’

by Aaron Blake

As time ran out in overtime during the NCAA women’s Frozen Four third place game last Sunday in Durham, N.H., Minnesota freshman goaltender Brenda Reinen slid across the crease to make a solid save of Niagara forward Valerie Hall’s rebound.

The stop salvaged a tie and saved some face for the Gophers (28-4-6), who had been the unanimous No. 1 team for weeks before the Frozen Four. A 2-1 loss to Brown in the semifinals ruined Minnesota’s chances of completing a sweep of the WCHA regular season and post season titles, as well as the NCAA championship.

Whereas the Gophers prided themselves on pulling out close games – going 13-1 in one-goal games and 6-0-5 in overtime during the regular season – they fell just short of continuing those trends.

“I’m still disappointed about the outcome of the Frozen Four,” Minnesota freshman Kristy Oonincx said. “We pulled out those (close) games because we never gave up. Even in the national tournament, we fought till the end.

“Sometimes the puck doesn’t bounce our wayÖ. We were at the national tournament, unfortunately. But that’s the way it went.”

Contributions from freshmen like Oonincx, Reinen, Kelly Stephens, and Jody Horak, coupled with switching Patty Kazmaier Award finalist Ronda Curtin to defense, turned a rebuilding year into a competitive year. Nine freshmen and four sophomores grace the 18-player roster.

“Our biggest question mark heading into the season was the defensive side of things,” Minnesota coach Laura Halldorson said. “We ended up doing a great job of shutting down teams defensively.”

Reinen and Horak took care of the goaltending concerns while Curtin bolstered a young group of defenders to national prominence.

Horak finished second in the nation with a .947 save percentage while Reinen was right behind her at .945. Both were in the top four nationally in goals against average as well. Their combined record for the season was 26-3-6.

Curtin finished tied for seventh nationally with 47 points, and the junior was one of three finalists for the Kazmaier Award, honoring the top player in women’s college hockey. She led a group of three sophomores and a freshman to third in the country defensively.

Questions were also answered in the form of the Gophers running off a team-record 24-game unbeaten streak and going 25-1-4 over the final five months of the season heading into the Frozen Four.

Having often overachieved this season, the team knows its outlook for the seasons to come is bright. The Gophers will lose only three players from this year’s roster – captains Laura Slominski and Tracy Engstrom as well as Sarma Pone.

“I was having a hard time (in the locker room after the Niagara game speaking to teammates),” Slominski said. “All I could say is that I loved them, and I had a great time. I’m just proud of all of them and how hard we’ve worked all year long.”

As Slominski and her fellow seniors exit, a talented group of players are waiting in the wings.

Christening the new 3,400-seat Ridder Arena will be senior Winny Brodt, returning after a year out of hockey. Redshirt freshman Renee Curtin comes back after various ailments left her unable to compete this season.

South St. Paul’s Ashley Albrecht and Roseville’s Chelsea Brodt join the team, and to top it off, Olympian Krissy Wendell brings her considerable skills to gold country.

Wendell’s U.S. national teammate Natalie Darwitz is also being recruiting by Minnesota.

Nevertheless, this group has a tough act to follow – a score of underclassmen who nearly won a national championship.

“The experience we have coming in and the experience the freshmen gained this year will be awesome assets for next year’s team,” Oonincx said. “It makes us look forward to next year because we have unfinished business to attend to.”

Aaron Blake covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]