Seniors’ roles pivotal down the stretch

Their experience in big games could prove essential in a championship run.

Austin Cumblad

The Minnesota women’s hockey team has a little-known incentive to win games: Dairy Queen.

“If we’re on the road and we sweep a team we get to go to Dairy Queen,” senior forward Whitney Graft said. “Everyone loves it.”

But just in case that isn’t motivation enough, there’s always the chance of a Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship, a WCHA tournament championship and an NCAA championship.

And if Minnesota is looking for players to lead such a charge, there are five seniors who have experienced all three.

As freshmen, forwards Bobbi Ross, Erica McKenzie, Jenelle Philipczyk, Graft and defender Anya Miller were part of one of the most dynamic teams in Minnesota women’s hockey history.

The 2004-2005 Gophers posted a 36-2-2 record, a school record for total wins and winning percentage, en route to a second straight NCAA championship. They also boasted a 25-1-2 record in conference, capturing the WCHA regular-season and tournament championships.

That’s a lot of success to be exposed to right away, and the drive to win has stuck with the class of 2008.

The formula, however, has changed dramatically.

In 2004-2005, Natalie Darwitz, Krissy Wendell, and Kelly Stephens combined for 118 goals. So far this year, Minnesota has tallied 94 goals as an entire team.

As such, this year’s team finds itself in much closer games where more emphasis must be placed on focus and intensity, especially on the defensive end.

“Freshman year we had so much talent that in some games we could get by on talent alone,” Graft said. “This year, every game is very competitive so everyone has to make sure they’re working hard.”

Graft and her fellow seniors have taken it upon themselves to make sure the team is doing just that, and coach Brad Frost can rely on them to be active and vocal leaders.

“All five of our seniors are great kids and great leaders both on and off the ice,” he said. “When something needs to be said that a coach would normally say, they feel comfortable doing that.”

What may be even more important than the leadership of the seniors, however, is their experience.

All five have been to two NCAA national championships and with the ultimate goal this season being another, their role will only become more crucial in the coming weeks as they try to keep the team loose, yet focused at the same time. Fortunately for the Gophers, there are players that can do both.

“Overall we just have a really nice combination of personalities and different attitudes about getting ready for a game,” Miller said. “We have people that are more intense but we also have people that keep the mood light.”

In addition, the seniors have become comfortable in big games and on the national stage.

As the seniors on the team did for them when they were freshmen, Ross, McKenzie, Philipczyk, Miller and Graft will try to keep the underclassmen composed before important games.

“I find it very beneficial when we’re in big games that the five of us have been there before,” Ross said. “And I think we do a good job of keeping our heads and leading by example. When a freshman can see that you’re calm and excited but not nervous I think it calms them a bit too.”