Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lions, Tigers Tangle For Transition Bragging Rights

Versatile Ellesha Fortuna helps spark the RIT offense. 

If I'm being perfectly honest, there are eight games on the women's schedule that I had circled maybe a little more than the others prior to the start of the season: the four each against Lindenwood and RIT, the team that will oppose the Nittany Lions at the Ice Pavilion tonight at 7:00 p.m. and tomorrow night at 7:30 p.m.

Both games will be broadcast by America One ($), with free live stats available through

The reason for placing added emphasis on those two conference opponents is pretty obvious. Lindenwood is a former ACHA team in its second year of NCAA Division I play. RIT is in its first season at the DI level after a long and successful history in DIII, including a 28-1-1 record and a national championship last season and a runner-up finish in 2010-2011. Here's a look at the Tigers' triumphant exit from DIII.

Lindenwood, RIT and Penn State all took different paths to DI, and while it might not be entirely fair to compare the three as a result (particularly RIT, as its transition came from a higher level than the ACHA), it's impossible to avoid the temptation to do so. They were the consensus fourth (RIT), fifth (Lindenwood) and sixth (PSU) place CHA picks behind the three teams that have been playing DI hockey for more than two years and, on paper anyway, there's not much to separate them. It seems obvious that the games between the DI newcomers will be the cause of any shuffling that takes place between prediction and reality.

Six games into the season, I'm still not sure that we have a great idea of how the Tigers (3-3-0, 0-2-0 CHA) have translated. The first two were the expected blowout losses to Mercyhurst. The next two were the expected blowout wins at Sacred Heart. The final two games - last weekend - were a 2-1 home loss to Princeton and a 3-0 shutout of Yale at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena. The latter was actually the first game of RIT's homecoming doubleheader that featured the men's team losing to Penn State in the nightcap (and yes, I'm going to squeeze that in wherever possible).

What we do know: the ability of Penn State's young guns to match the maturity and poise of a highly-experienced RIT team is going to be one of the keys to the series. PSU, as we all know, has an incredible 17 freshmen while the Tigers have seniors playing almost every significant role on the team.

Up front junior Kourtney Kunichika, who led the team in scoring last season and has four assists in four games so far this season, returns. So does captain Kim Schlattman and alternates Ariane Yokoyama and Tenecia Hiller. All three are seniors (as mentioned, a pretty common theme) and incredibly, all three wore the same letters on their jerseys last season. Oh yeah, they also chip in a little offense as well - they're three of the Tigers' top five scorers so far.

Reigning CHA Player of the Week Shannon Yoxheimer will be counted on to beat a tough Tigers defense.

In Division III last season, RIT allowed just 30 goals in 30 games, a pretty scary statistic for a Penn State team that has scored 11 goals in its two wins, but just two in the four losses, including a weekend shutout at the hands of Syracuse in the Nittany Lions' only CHA games before now. Six blueliners that helped put out that impressive effort return, including seniors Kristina Moss, a DIII All-American, and Danielle Read. Ellesha Fortuna, still another senior, swings between defense and forward, providing instant offense wherever she goes. In net, Laura Chamberlain and Ali Binnington have split time, a trend that is likely to continue against Penn State. Binnington, who shares a hometown of Oakville, ON with PSU tendy Nicole Paniccia, already has two shutouts.

A few other things to consider:
  • Barring a pair of ties, one of the programs will win its first-ever CHA game. Both PSU and RIT are 0-2-0 in the league, with the Tigers dropping a pair to Mercyhurst to open the season and PSU, as mentioned, losing twice to Syracuse.
  • Despite being skunked on the power play through the first five games of the season, the Nittany Lions connected three times last Saturday against Sacred Heart and are now 3-for-24 (12.5%) with the advantage this season. RIT is 5-for-32 (15.6%).
  • In addition to kick-starting the power play, the 6-1 win over the Pioneers also added some much-needed balance to PSU's scoring efforts. Taylor Gross, Jeanette Bateman, Jordin Pardoski, Jess Desorcie and Hannah Hoenshell all scored their first goals of the season - previously, Shannon Yoxheimer, Birdie Shaw and Micayla Catanzariti had been the only players to find the back of the net for the Nittany Lions.
  • Thanks to shutouts by Syracuse goalies Jenesica Drinkwater and Kallie Billadeau in the only two games at the Ice Pavilion so far, PSU is still looking for its first home goal this season, and therefore of the NCAA era.
These might be two games that ultimately go a long way towards identifying where the Nittany Lions and Tigers both fall in NCAA year one. Or they might just be two games in what, on balance, is a long season bound to be full of unexpected results. Either way, it sets up as an intriguing series that should provide much-needed context at this early juncture.

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