Women’s hockey looks for stronger finish next year

by Brett Angel

After enduring another forgettable performance by Minnesota’s women’s hockey team at the NCAA Frozen Four last weekend, head coach Laura Halldorson decided to take a day off Monday – probably in part to contemplate what might have been.

The Gophers (27-8-1) justified high expectations that came with the addition of former Olympians Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell. Minnesota posted its best first-half record in team history (15-2-1) and shot its way to the top of the national rankings.

But after the hot start, Minnesota once again saw its hopes for the team’s first NCAA national championship fizzle in the postseason with consecutive losses to Harvard and Dartmouth in Duluth last weekend.

It’s a scene that’s becoming all too familiar for Halldorson, who, after winning the AWCHA national title in 2000, has witnessed the postseason collapse of three Minnesota teams ranked among the nation’s best.

“You have to realize the teams we lost out to (this year) were among the best teams in the country and possibly the best women’s college hockey teams ever,” Halldorson said, referring specifically to Harvard and Minnesota-Duluth.

But the Gophers hail from the flagship school of the most hockey-crazed state in the country, yet have watched from the stands three straight years while Minnesota-Duluth established itself as the dominant team in the nation – winning three consecutive rings.

Halldorson remains convinced that she coaches one of the best programs in the country, but ultimately a collegiate hockey team as proven as Minnesota is measured by winning in the spring.

The Gophers’ blistering start this season and their ensuing Frozen Four failures seemed to mirror the 2001-02 campaign, but Halldorson said the two seasons were in fact very different.

Last season was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Gophers, who ended up overachieving despite their finish.

But this year was a different story.

Minnesota welcomed Twin Cities natives Wendell and Darwitz back from the U.S. National Team. And former WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Winny Brodt, who had taken a year off, returned to compliment a stellar freshman class.

Things took a turn for the worse on Feb. 6, however, when sophomore Kristy Oonincx was suspended indefinitely for what Halldorson called conduct detrimental to the team.

Oonincx ranked third on the team with 25 points before her suspension. She will transfer to St. Cloud State and regain her eligibility in 2004-05.

Two days later, Wendell, the team’s second-leading scorer, was flattened at center ice in the closing seconds against Ohio State. Wendell suffered a fractured collarbone and missed the rest of the regular season before returning last weekend.

The Gophers managed to win five of the eight games without Wendell in the lineup, but Halldorson knew the task would be even more difficult at the Frozen Four.

“Compared to the other teams in the national tournament, we didn’t have the depth,” Halldorson said.

Minnesota hopes the addition of high school standouts Lyndsay Wall and Andrea Nichols will help solve that problem next season.

Wall, a native of Churchville, N.Y., played with Wendell and Darwitz on the U.S. National Team and is considered one of the top defensive recruits in the country.

Nichols led the state of Minnesota in scoring the past two seasons at Hibbing High School and was named 2003 Minnesota Ms. Hockey.

A stellar freshman class is nothing new to Gophers fans, but with a year of collegiate experience now under the belts of Wendell and Darwitz, Halldorson is once again

optimistic about her team’s chances come next fall.

“We know the results this past weekend were disappointing,” Halldorson said. “But we have a lot of talent coming in and I think we’ll be OK.”

Minnesota will undoubtedly chalk up its share of wins next season, but just how far the team has come will be measured next spring.

Brett Angel covers women’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]