Friday, December 23, 2011

Fall Semester Review: Lady Icers

Freshmen Tess Weaver (left) and Cara Mendelson (right) - both from Josh Brandwene's rapidly-growing Pittsburgh pipeline - have become lineup mainstays.

As one might expect with a program that will make its NCAA Division I debut roughly nine months from now, the past six months have brought an avalanche of news related to the Penn State's women's program, all of it positive.

To recap: On June 1, former Icers defenseman Josh Brandwene was introduced as Penn State's first varsity women's coach. He moved quickly to fill out his staff with previous ACHA head coach Mo Stroemel and former Boston University star-turned-Neumann assistant coach Gina Kearns. On September 6, a press conference took place announcing that PSU will join College Hockey America beginning with the inaugural DI season (also of note in the CHA: a web streaming deal was finalized and Lindenwood was added as the conference's ever-important sixth member). Two days later, the team's 2011-2012 roster was released, including a fourteen-player recruiting class. In August, National Sports Academy senior Emily Laurenzi became the first NCAA-only recruit in program history, and in November she was joined by 12 other players in signing National Letters of Intent for next season. And I didn't even mention developments concerning the Pegula Ice Arena, breaking ground in February, until now.

Got all that? Good.

Turning to what has transpired on the ice so far this year, it's probably fair to say that the Lady Icers' final pre-varsity season has gone about as expected. A brutal fall semester schedule that included eight games against NCAA Division III competition plus one against future CHA rival Robert Morris resulted in a 4-9-2 record (4-2-0 in ACHA games).

Then again, despite the 0-7-2 mark in those NCAA games, PSU has shown remarkably well. Only twice (once against the DI Colonials) have the Lady Icers lost by more than two goals. Before a semester-closing 5-0 home loss to Neumann (the other game with a large margin), Penn State had a five-game DIII streak that went like this:
  1. November 4: A scoreless tie at Chatham.
  2. November 5: A 2-2 tie at Chatham.
  3. November 18: A 2-1 overtime loss at home to Cortland.
  4. November 19: Another 2-1 Ice Pavilion defeat to Cortland, this time in regulation.
  5. December 9: A 2-1 loss at Neumann in which PSU arguably had the better of the play over the last half of the game
As frustrating as a large series of close losses is, the team's competitiveness while playing up in weight class has to be seen as a large positive. Games such as these are definitely something that will serve Brandwene's charges well moving forward.

Those charges so far have been led by an interesting mix of freshmen and veterans. Newcomers like dynamic scorer Tess Weaver, talented forward Katie Murphy and a sturdy defense group including the pair of Madison Smiddy and Ashton Schaffer, along with Paige Harrington, Cara Mendelson and Lisa Frank, have played vital roles.

Sophomore Allie Rothman has shown great versatility in jumping from defense to forward.

They have been well complemented by returning players Sara Chroman and Allie Rothman - who linked up with Weaver in the December 9 Neumann game to form a particularly dangerous line - as well as hard-working Katharine Gausseres and consummate teammate Carly Szyszko (we learned about that last year, when she played goalie). And of course, there's Katie Vaughan, the goalie with DI ability who liked Penn State enough to pay to attend. Vaughan has been spectacular all season, although unfortunately, many of her biggest games have come in losses (her 92 saves in 98 shots in two games against DIII Potsdam in October come immediately to mind).

If the first semester was about the Lady Icers flexing some muscle against the NCAA, the spring will be about building an ACHA resume worthy of a trip to nationals in Wooster, OH from March 8-10, 2012.

Two more NCAA games, at DI Sacred Heart on January 13 and 14, await. But for the No. 12 team in the country, the more important contests will be at home against No. 5 Rhode Island (the team's next games, on January 6 and 7), at home against No. 10 Ohio State (January 28 and 29), at No. 1 Northeastern (February 3 and 4) and at No. 6 UMass (February 10 and 11). Those latter eight games will determine whether PSU is able to claw its way up the poll in time for the final ranking on February 17.

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