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Minnesota chases an elusive NCAA title

Minnesota brings a nine-game unbeaten streak into this year’s national tournament.

Underneath section five in Ridder Arena, between a women’s restroom and a concession stand, a simple glass trophy case rests against a white concrete wall.

Inside is Minnesota’s women’s hockey team’s American Women’s College Hockey Alliance fourth-place trophy from 1998 and third-place trophy from 1999.

There are also the Gophers’ two trophies from the NCAA Championships – third place from 2002 and fourth place from 2003.

“We hope that we’ll have to buy a few more trophy cases before too long,” coach Laura Halldorson said.

But there is an empty space in the lower right-hand corner, and Minnesota’s mission this season will not be complete until the case includes an NCAA title trophy.

Despite winning the 2000 AWCHA national championship, the Gophers have never won a game at the NCAA Championships. After two years of disappointment at the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota said it feels it is in prime position to end the drought and bring home the title that has eluded it.

“In the past, we haven’t been peaking at the right times,” senior co-captain Kelsey Bills said. “This year, that’s not going to be an issue at all.”

Minnesota is on a nine-game unbeaten streak, having won its last eight games. During that run, the Gophers have outscored their opponents 39-18.

The Gophers are both the WCHA regular season and tournament champions for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

“We’re as confident as we’ve been all year because of the way we finished at the tournament,” Halldorson said. “We’ve got things going pretty well, and we just need to keep it going for two more games.”

The top-seeded Gophers (28-4-2) take on fourth-seeded Dartmouth (24-6-2) at 4 p.m. CDT Friday in the first game of the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament in Providence, R.I.

The other semifinal pits second-seeded Harvard (29-3-1) against third-seeded St. Lawrence (27-9-1).

The three other schools are all from the Eastern College Athletic Conference, making the Gophers the only team west of New York state in the tournament.

There is a regional feud in the women’s hockey world according to Minnesota freshman forward Becky Wacker, the only East Coast skater on the Gophers’ roster.

“There’s a lot of east versus west,” she said. “There’s a rivalry there. We really don’t like each other that much.”

Minnesota-Duluth has taken home the last three NCAA titles, and it is now the Gophers’ responsibility to represent the Midwest and keep the national title in the area.

“We’ll not only go into this tournament playing for the University of Minnesota, but also for the WCHA,” Halldorson said. “We’ll definitely be outnumbered out there.”

Minnesota has only three freshmen on its roster for the Frozen Four, meaning all other skaters have experience on the national stage.

Last season, the Gophers lost 6-1 to Harvard in the

opening round of the tournament before falling 4-2 to Dartmouth in the third-place game.

But Minnesota is not looking back as it prepares for the Frozen Four.

“All that we’re going to use from last year was a little bit of the emotion that it created,” Halldorson said.

Best of the best

The 2004 Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award will be announced Saturday night in Providence. The award is given annually to the most outstanding player in women’s college hockey.

The three finalists for the honor this year are Minnesota-Duluth forward Jenny Potter, Harvard defender Angela Ruggiero and Northeastern goaltender Chanda Gunn.

The recipient will be chosen by a 13-member selection committee made up of coaches, representatives of the print and broadcast media, and a representative of USA Hockey.

Minnesota sophomore forwards Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz were among the 10 finalists before the field was narrowed to three for the second-straight season.

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