By Justin Long
The Lord Jeffs head into this weekend's national semifinal game as one of the hottest teams in the country. And no, it's not the men's basketball team.
While the Amherst College men's hoops team is known throughout the country, having been the top-ranked team at one point this season, women's hockey is still an emerging sport, and many people are probably unaware that the school even has a women's hockey team. Being one of only four teams remaining in the NCAA Championship Tournament as the eighth-ranked team in the country, however, is a good way to get some recognition.
The reason it seems the women's hockey program's success has come out of nowhere is that, quite frankly, it has. At this time last year, Amherst's season was three weeks in the dust, as the Jeffs finished with a 10-15 record after being eliminated from the NESCAC Championship Tournament in the first round for the fifth consecutive season. Today, the Lord Jeffs are boasting a 20-5-3 record as NESCAC champions after struggling to a 3-4 start.
Despite the Jeffs' incredible run, their slow start to the season forced them to play catch-up in the race for sports headlines at Amherst. After the second weekend in December, both the men's basketball and the men's hockey teams sat undefeated and were garnering significant national attention. Who had time to pay attention to a sub-.500 women's hockey team that had given up eight goals to Bowdoin College and five to each Williams College and Plattsburgh State?
According to head coach Jim Plumer, the turning point of the season was a 5-2 loss at Williams on Dec. 1, one day before the first match-up with Middlebury College. "We had an important team meeting the morning before the Middlebury game," he explains. "We then went and outplayed Middlebury and haven't been the same since."
The Williams loss became a building block for Amherst, who let the game slip away because of three or four key lapses on defense. "Our team strategy became fully committing to playing defense," notes Plumer. "We had to get the third and fourth lines to understand that they are just as important as the first and second lines. We were able to do this the next day against Middlebury, and, even though we lost, we developed confidence that we did not have before."
But Plumer did not dwell on his team's 3-4 record, because he liked the January schedule that lay ahead. He may not have known his team would go on an 11-game unbeaten streak for the month (during which the team picked up four shutouts and outscored its opponents 41-5 in nine wins), but he still felt Amherst was one of the top four teams in the conference.
Amherst is 17-3-3 since that team meeting, losing only to third-ranked Middlebury, top-ranked Plattsburgh and 10th-ranked Utica College. Four Jeffs are among the NESCAC's top 10 points leaders and top 10 assists leaders. Three Amherst first-years are among the NESCAC's top five for first-year scoring. Sophomore Tarasai Karega leads the conference in goals and the nation in game-winning goals, while first-year Krystyn Elek boasts the NESCAC's highest (and nation's third-highest) save percentage.
Yet it still took a while for the Amherst community to take notice. Even after a dominating January, Plumer and his team were trumped by the other winter programs. After the last weekend in January, the men's hockey team was still in control of the NESCAC at 12-4-1 and the men's basketball team had just set a school record with its 20th consecutive win.
It was not until the second weekend in February that Amherst's women's hockey team began to pull ahead of the pack, defeating archrival Williams 5-4 in overtime for the program's first-ever victory over the Ephs just one day after tying powerhouse Middlebury. Meanwhile, the men's hockey team was snapping a three-game losing skid and had lost its commanding lead in the NESCAC, while men's hoops suffered its first loss to finish the regular season at 23-1.
Now women's hockey is 20-5-3, having taken down Wlliams and Bowdoin in overtime and Middlebury in triple overtime to earn a NESCAC title before slaying fourth-ranked Rochester Institute of Technology to win the program's first NCAA Tournament game. The wins are impressive on their own, but they are even more special because Amherst had never defeated the Polar Bears or Panthers before, and had never played RIT.
(Oh, and just in case anybody believes either the conference title or NCAA Frozen Four appearance is a fluke; try to explain how Amherst has given up only four goals to Middlebury in three games this season, all of which were scored on power plays).
The team's statistics are remarkable, but anyone can see on paper how good these young women are; what people cannot see is how much fun they are having. "This is one of the first teams that I have played on where a lot of the girls on the team are friends first and teammates second," explains sophomore forward Lindsey Harrington. "I think that is the main reason why we have had so much success this year - because we all enjoy being around one another and there is no tension within our team."
Teammates getting along and enjoying chemistry may seem cliché, but the Amherst coaching staff and players stress how truly genuine the friendships are, not being able to recall a group of teammates that has had so much fun together.
"When you have a genuine friendship with a teammate, you put as much value on their success as you do on your own," says junior forward Megan Quinn. "That unselfish attitude has translated to great chemistry both on and off the ice."
Plumer also credits senior leadership for the team's success, particularly the leadership displayed by goaltender Lindsay Grabowski. "Lindsay is definitely one of the team's unsung heroes," says Plumer. "She and Elek make up one of the most dynamic combinations in net I've ever seen."
Elek, the NESCAC Rookie of the Year, has been recognized all season long as one of the best goalies in the country. Her dominance began to attract notice when she went 15 consecutive periods without surrendering a goal earlier in the season, while her performance in the NESCAC tournament earned her NESCAC Player of the Week and USCHO.com Defensive Player of the Week honors.
So how did Grabowski respond to Elek's success? Aside from posting a 5-1 record with an impressive 2.16 goals-against average (not a bad "backup" to have), the senior has been one of Elek's biggest supporters. "Even though they're constantly in competition with each other, [Grabowski] cheers the loudest when [Elek] makes a great save and is the first one off the bench to congratulate her after a win," explains Quinn. "That kind of selflessness has trickled down to the rest of the team so that even though we all want to play every shift of the game, we recognize the big picture and can sacrifice our personal goals for those of the team. I really think that this kind of mentality has stemmed from great team unity as well as the examples set by our seniors."
Amherst's amazing turnaround earned Plumer NESCAC Coach of the Year honors, but he realizes that good coaching can take a team only so far. "Something magical is definitely going on here," he says. "This is certainly not part of a master plan of mine. We've focused on a lot of the little things that make a difference, but this team has just learned how to win, and the kids deserve the credit for having that resolve."
Plumer is referring to how there have been several times when the team has had reasons to use excuses. The Jeffs played eight games in 16 days, including a weekend trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and had road games on three consecutive days the following weekend. "We have had plenty of gut checks this season, but the players have responded well," says Plumer. "We have four overtime wins this year; they've figured out how to play in the clutch, and this was lacking in the past."
The Jeffs headed into the NCAA Tournament with no expectations. They had never defeated Williams, Bowdoin or Middlebury, but are 4-3-2 against them this season. They had never won a NESCAC tournament game, but are now champions. They had never advanced to the NCAA Tournament, but are now among the four best teams in the country.
There will be plenty of time next year to try to meet people's expectations, but for now this is all uncharted territory. "We're just going to play without any pressure," explains Plumer. "If we lost in the NESCAC tournament and didn't get to have practice these past two weeks, I would have genuinely been disappointed – I think we all would have been. We just don't want the season to end because we're having so much fun, and flying under the radar has made it even more special."
Amherst's next foray into the NCAA Tournament pairs them up with top-ranked Plattsburgh, who handed the Jeffs a 5-1 loss earlier this season. "It's a great opportunity to see how far we've come since we played them in the first semester," says Plumer. "Obviously they're a great team, and we're still definitely the underdog, but that's where we'd like to be."
Do the Jeffs have any magic left in the tank? The pundits may not think so, but that may be what Amherst wants people to think. Like Plumer said, it's more fun being the underdog.