MIDDLEBURY, VT – The Amherst College women's ice hockey team won its first ever national title Saturday night in exhilarating fashion. Tied with Elmira College 3-3 after regulation thanks to a late Amherst goal, it was junior Kate Dennett's (Highlands Ranch, CO) overtime tally that sent the Lord Jeff bench and crowd into an uproar.
Three schools had won the NCAA Division III Women's Ice Hockey Championship title prior to Amherst, and the Lord Jeffs defeated all three on their road to glory. After earning a convincing 4-1 win over two-time defending champion Plattsburgh State in the opening round, Amherst advanced to the championship game with a 3-2 victory over 2004, 2005 and 2006 national champion Middlebury. The Jeffs' final victim of the season was Elmira, which won the inaugural 2002 title before repeating in 2003.
The women's hockey team is the fifth program in Amherst history to win a national title. The women's tennis team earned the title of National Champion in 1999 before the women's lacrosse team took home the NCAA Championship trophy in 2003. Amherst claimed national titles in back-to-back academic years when the men's basketball team capped off a dominating season with the 2007 national crown, with the women's cross country team following up with a championship in the Fall of 2007.
On Saturday, the Lord Jeffs made it three academic years in a row that an Amherst College team won an NCAA Division III Championship. Amherst's women's ice hockey program has come a long way since its inaugural 1995-96 season, which featured only seven wins. The Jeffs experienced only one winning season in their first 11 years but have since joined the ranks of the nation's best teams.
Ending their careers on the highest of high notes are seniors Anna MacLean (Edina, MN), Tarasai Karega (Detroit, MI), Julie Radziewicz (Orlando, FL) and Lindsey Harrington (Westford, MA). The Class of 2009 posted a record of 74-31-7 (.692) in its four years together, claiming a pair of NESCAC titles and winning at least 20 games in each of the past three seasons.
Head coach Jim Plumer characterized Saturday's affair as "a game of momentum changes," aptly capturing the essence of a game that featured three lead changes. Having come from behind twice during the game, Amherst showed its championship caliber and deservedly leaves Middlebury tonight with the NCAA National Championship trophy.
Amherst came out tentative in the first period, something Plumer attributes to some championship "nerves." Elmira pounced on this hesitancy by Amherst, creating the first scoring chance three minutes into the game. After a turnover deep in the Amherst zone, an Elmira forward found herself one-on-one with Krystyn Elek (Summerville, SC) in the Amherst net. After a slap shot from the left slot, Elek managed a save on her glove side.
After some end-to-end play, Amherst committed a pair of penalties within seconds of each other, creating a 5-on-3 for Elmira. With only 11 seconds remaining on the first penalty, Elmira made a breakthrough. After receiving the puck from Jenna McCall (Thamesford, ONT) to the right of Elek's net, Elmira's leading scorer Kayla Coady (Charlottetown, PEI) lifted the puck over Elek's right pad, giving Elmira a 1-0 edge with 15:21 gone in the first period.
Amherst would create its best chance of the period during a 4-on-3 advantage with three minutes to go in the frame. After beating two Elmira defenders with some nifty stickwork, Courtney Hanlon (Fullerton, CA) managed to get off a backhand shot that sailed just past Elmira's right post.
After getting out-shot 8-3 in the first period, Amherst brought the fire in the second period, out-shooting Elmira 13-5. Amherst's inspired play paid off three minutes into the period after Harrington won a face-off in the Elmira zone for the Jeffs. After Harrington's win, Hanlon gathered the puck along the left-side boards. With Allison Cubberley (Bracebridge, ONT) screened in the Elmira goal, Hanlon ripped a wrist shot through traffic into the top-right corner, knotting the score at 1-1.
Heavy Amherst pressure would pay off again 15:16 into the second period. As Karega held the puck behind the Amherst goal, Emily Vitale (Cheshire, CT) made a darting run in front of the net. Karega fed Vitale, and Vitale redirected the puck with her skate across the crease. Dennet was on the spot to slam the redirection home and give Amherst its first lead of the night at 2-1.
After spending most of the period in the Elmira zone, Amherst was forced to kill a penalty at the end of the frame, doing so with some committed defense and inspired goaltending.
It was Elmira who struck first in the third period. After gaining the puck behind the Amherst net, Erika Godwin (Ottawa, ONT) cut in front and sent the puck across the crease for Coady who converted for her second of the night. The goal was her fifth of the 2009 NCAA tournament, setting a new NCAA Championship record for goals in a single tournament.
With the scores tied at 2-2, the game would continue to teeter on a knife's edge, as both sides pressed for a winner.
Less than two minutes after Elmira's tying goal, a deflected Amherst pass would give Jamie Huntley (La Jolla, CA) a golden opportunity right in front of the Amherst net. However, Alyssa Chwick (Rye Brook, NY) made a fantastic defensive play to recover and quell the danger.
Amherst dodged another bullet with 15:40 on the clock as the referee raised his hand for a delayed penalty. Elek, thinking the penalty was against Elmira, began to skate to the Amherst bench to take advantage of the delayed penalty. However, the penalty was on Amherst and as the puck made its way to an Elmira forward, she had an open net to shoot at but sent the puck wide.
Elmira would capture the lead with 8:16 remaining through first-year Kathryn Walker. Her shot from just inside the blue line made its way through a crowd to nestle in the top-right corner, giving Elmira a 3-2 advantage with little time left.
Amherst, however, did not submit. The Jeffs turned up the heat, applying relentless pressure in the Elmira zone to create a series of chances. With only 2:18 left on the clock, and the national championship on the line, it was first-year Emily Vitale who stepped up. The first-year was able to convert a scramble in front of the net after Cubberley saved shots by Dennett and Karega, as Amherst had found renewed life with the game tied at three goals apiece.
After tying the score so late in the third, Amherst was able to carry that momentum into the overtime period. The Jeffs created several chances during a 5-on-3 advantage early in the "sudden victory" period, but were unable to convert as the Elmira penalty kill unit came up with a big defensive stand.
The Jeffs maintained this momentum until 12:22 into the period when Dennett collected the puck along the left-side boards. She beat a defender with an outstanding move and directed a wrist shot into Cubberley's chest. The All-American Elmira goaltender lost track of the puck, giving up a rebound that trickled out in front of her. Dennett, displaying her trademark persistence, followed her shot and managed to poke the rebound through Cubberley's legs. As the referee pointed to the goal and the goal-light was ignited, the ecstatic Amherst bench flooded the ice while sending its equipment into the rafters of Kenyon Arena.
Elek finished with 25 saves for Amherst (24-5-0), while Cubberley stopped 28 shots in the losing effort for the Soaring Eagles (24-5-1). Elek, Dennet, junior tri-captain Kirsten Dier (Appleton, WI) and Harrington were named to the All-Tournament team for Amherst, as were Coady and Jamie Kivi for Elmira.
The Lord Jeffs will return to action in November when they will have a national title to defend for the first time in program history.