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Published April 19, 2024

Lifelong friends: 2018-19 UMN women’s hockey freshman class

Six fifth-years speak about their experiences as Gophers hockey players.
Freshman Taylor Heise goes for the goal on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Ridder Arena. Former Gopher Grace Zumwinkle leads PWHL Minnesota in both goals and points.
Image by Elle Moulin
Freshman Taylor Heise goes for the goal on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018, at Ridder Arena. Former Gopher Grace Zumwinkle leads PWHL Minnesota in both goals and points.

With two Frozen Four appearances, a Final Faceoff championship, more than 100 wins, almost 800 combined point, and many more accolades across five seasons, the 2018-19 Gophers women’s hockey freshman class is quite decorated.

Since debuting in a 2018 home series against Mercyhurst, Minnesota hockey fans have witnessed the talent of now fifth-years Taylor Heise, Emily Oden, Abigail Boreen, Catie Skaja, Gracie Ostertag and Crystalyn Hengler.

An incredible bond rooted in Minnesota hockey 

“I mean, words can’t even describe our bond,” Boreen said about her relationship with her freshman class.

Despite being the only one of the six not from Minnesota, Boreen is still inseparable from her freshman class.

“I consider us all from Minnesota,” Oden said. “Some of us grew up together.”

Oden played with Skaja and Hengler on the first women’s Minnesota Made Machine team. The three played together when they were just eight years old. A decade later, the three would find themselves playing together once again with the Gophers

“It’s so special because we came from just learning how to do inside edges to playing Division 1 together,” Oden continued.

“You can’t even explain it to people; when you get to wake up with the people that you love every day, and the people that support you and the people that do the things you do — it’s definitely an unreal feeling,” Heise said.

Heise roomed with Hengler in the 17th Avenue Residence Hall during their first year at Minnesota.

“It definitely brought us closer,” she said.

Similarly, Boreen roomed with Skaja in 17th, which helped in building their relationship as well.

Oden and Ostertag roomed together both their freshman year and when they played for the under-18 United States team. Representing the United States together wasn’t their first time sharing the ice, however. The two played on the same OS Hockey team when they were younger.

Homegrown players coming to the ‘U’

The Minnesota homegrown aspect of Gophers hockey is what the players believe separates their program from others.

“You’ve either played with them or played against them,” Hengler said.

“We’re the state of hockey, so being able to play for one of the best teams in the country is just such an honor in itself,” Oden said.
Growing up around the ‘U’ permitted easy access to women’s hockey games when the players were younger.

“I remember when I was about seven or eight, my mom brought me to a game,” Skaja said. “I was like: ‘I’m coming here.’”

Evidently, Skaja’s dream would come true, working her way up to playing on a line with Heise and Boreen in her fifth year.

“They’re definitely two of my best friends that I see and talk to on a daily basis,” Heise described her relationship with her linemates.

“A big thing for me was just being close to home,” Hengler said about her decision to come to Minnesota. “The culture as well, just the players that were there when I was touring; they were very welcoming.”

Back when they were freshmen

While mentors in their fifth years, the role models once had to learn the ropes themselves.

Sophie Skarzynski was a popular response when asked who mentored players on the 2018-19 freshman class.

“She’s the most outgoing person I’ve ever met in my life,” Oden said about Skarzynski. “She really just took all the freshmen under her wing.

Skarzynski was a senior in the 2018-19 season. Being a defender, she helped Hengler improve her defensive skills, among other things.

“Whether it was hockey stuff or lifestyle or school stuff, she helped me with anything,” Hengler added about Skarzynski.

Another blue liner that benefited from Skarzynski’s presence was Ostertag.

“She cared about the relationships that she fostered with teammates and brought the energy every day,” Ostertag said. “I’ll never forget when she invited my entire class over to her house for dinner, right in the beginning of the season when we didn’t know anyone. And she may not know it, but for us, that meant a lot to us.”

Taylor Williamson received a lot of praise as well. Heise said Williamson brought her a lot closer to why she plays the sport.

The next generation of talent

When looking down this past season’s top scorers on the Gophers roster, fifth-years occupy the top four of the five spots. Just one name belongs to an underclassman.

“I mean, Abbey Murphy, she’s already kind of made a name for herself,” Hengler stated about a player she’s excited to see develop.

“She’s someone that’s got somehow three years of college left, like, I don’t know how,” Heise said about Murphy. “I’m kind of jealous, she’s already got a world championship under her belt and an Olympics.”

Another name that came up in the conversation was Ella Huber.

“I could just see her drive each and every day,” Skaja said about Huber. “She’s probably one of the hardest workers and goes above and beyond.”

Peyton Hemp received recognition as well.

“I’m excited to see what she’s gonna bring to the table and help the team succeed in the next two years,” Hengler said about Hemp.

Ostertag said Emma Conner is someone she is excited to see develop.

“We both have similar experiences and the fact that we both tore our ACLs, so just to see kind of her recovery process,” Ostertag commented on Conner. She said “It’s going to be something that’s really special” when Conner returns.

Those are just a few of the many bright spots Gopher fans have to look forward to in the coming seasons.

“We have a great class coming in. I think they are gonna make tremendous impacts on the ice right away,” Boreen expressed. “We have a great returning class as well, they will make great strides and impacts on the ice, too.”

Favorite memories on and off the ice

Through their five years, there are plenty of individual games to look back on.

“Winning the WCHA [Western Collegiate Hockey Association] tournament,” Ostertag said. “I think for us, that was kind of a big statement.”

Boreen also said taking the WCHA title was one of her greatest memories. “Just that feeling in the locker room, that excitement. We all deserved it,” Boreen stated.

Hengler and Skaja both said one of their favorite memories was playing in the 2020 Hockey Day Minnesota game against Ohio State. The Gophers emerged victorious in the outdoor game, winning 2-1 at Parade Stadium in Minneapolis.

“I really enjoyed the atmosphere. It was so much fun, especially playing Ohio [State], too,” Skaja described the experience.

Yet, some of their best memories together occurred off the ice.

Oden briefly spoke about her cabin up north in McGregor, Minnesota. “We just hang out, play music at the tiki bar. It’s awesome,” Oden said about the times she spent with her class at her cabin.

Heise said one of her favorite memories as a Gopher was formed during her freshman year at a Superbowl party. Singing songs together and wearing “these ugly neon t-shirts,” as Heise describes, was something she fondly remembers: a small-scale experience that ended up being significant in the end.

Moving on from Gophers hockey

Unfortunately, the time has come for the fifth-years to decide what’s the next step in their journey.

The future for the six of them is up in the air. However, some are leaning towards continuing with hockey in one way or another.

Heise, already having played for the United States, says she plans on continuing to represent her country on the ice.

“I will be playing professionally,” Heise said. “Not sure what that looks like yet, but I will announce it when it happens.”

With the warmer weather starting to roll around, there’s a degree of uncertainty in the air.

“I feel like we’re kind of all in the midst of figuring out what we’re gonna do,” Ostertag said about her future. “For me, I know that coaching hockey is definitely somewhere in my future.”

Skaja and Oden both said they were debating joining the Minnesota Whitecaps of the Premier Hockey Federation.

“As of now, I’m also debating hanging them up and working full-time,” Oden stated. If she chooses to retire from hockey, she said she plans on pursuing a career in sales.

Hengler said she’s been job searching since the season ended. “I still have more school with the sport management master’s program that I’m doing,” Hengler described her situation. “So as of right now, just finishing up this semester, and then trying to look for a job,” she said were the next steps in her journey.

Like Hengler, Boreen is also pursuing a career away from playing hockey, planning to continue at the University by pursuing a doctorate of pharmacy degree.
Soon, the six will go their separate ways in terms of their careers. However, they’ll always share the same background as Gophers.

The six hope for the best for the future of the Gophers hockey program.

“It’s cliché, but really enjoy your time,” Boreen gave as advice to underclassmen.

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