Amherst Magazine

Two for the Record Books

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Let others have their brackets, their front-page headlines. At Amherst, March Madness wasn’t about the big-shots. It was all about two extraordinary teams: women’s ice hockey and women’s basketball. Let others have the famous names. Amherst has Kate Dennett ’10. Amherst has Sarah Leyman ’11. Amherst has Jim Plumer and G.P. Gromacki.

March 19, 2010, marked the first time that Amherst has had the same two teams play in the Final Four two years in a row. Women’s ice hockey and women’s basketball each had remarkable seasons that brought them to that point. Hockey arrived on the heels of a nine-game winning streak, ranked first in the nation for Division III. “We were quietly confident,” says Jim Plumer, the head coach, “because we’d been there before.”

Not only had the Jeffs been there—to the Frozen Four—before, they’d come to St. Peter, Minn., to defend their 2009 NCAA championship trophy. Two more wins and women’s ice hockey would become the first program in school history to win multiple national team championships.

Basketball had also been to the Final Four in 2009, when a 65-49 loss to the Bears of Washington University in St. Louis had ended the women’s best season ever. Now, in Bloomington, Ill., they would face the Bears again. This time, the Jeffs were undefeated and ranked number one in the country for Division III.

On March 19, 2010, one Amherst team lost, the other won. Yet while basketball had its dreams of a first-ever title-game appearance crushed—again—by the Bears, this time in an 86-75 overtime loss, the Jeffs made history in several other ways: It was the winningest season in Amherst basket­ball history. The women had the longest winning streak (31 games) and the longest home-winning streak (27 games and counting) in program history. They set a program record for scoring average (75.4 points per game). Leyman finished the season above the 900-point and 600-rebound marks, and Amherst ranked in the top five nationally in several statistical categories.

Meanwhile, hockey defeated its host, Gustavus Adolphus College, in a convincing 4-0 victory—“as close to a perfect game as I’ve ever seen,” Plumer says. “I was just hoping we hadn’t used it up.” They hadn’t. The next night, in a decisive 7-2 win over Norwich University, ice hockey claimed its second straight national title. The Amherst College athletics program has won six national team titles in history; women’s ice hockey now owns a full third of them. “I would call this the perfect storm,” Plumer says of the 2009-10 season. “We had the talent. We had the leadership. We had the chemistry.”

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“It’s just so hard to describe. Pure happiness, pure excitement,” says forward Kate Dennett ’10 of the win that gave women’s hockey its second straight national championship.

Women’s hockey earned an automatic berth and first-round bye in the NCAA championship after collecting its third NESCAC title in four years. This was its fourth consecutive appearance in the national tournament.

Hockey began its season with a string of wins over Wesleyan, New England College, Trinity, Rochester Institute of Technology and Plattsburgh, suffering its first loss on Jan. 4 to Elmira College. The Jeffs avenged that loss on Jan. 20, but 10 days later had their 53-game unbeaten streak in regular season conference play come to a halt with a 3-2 loss to Colby, which was ranked dead last in the NESCAC. “Colby outworked us,” Plumer says. “That snapped us out of any sort of complacency that we might have had. And really, we played phenomenal hockey from that day forward.”

A 3-1 win over Norwich wrapped up the regular season. In the opening round of the NESCAC championship, Amherst cruised past Colby, 10-1. A 2-1 overtime win over Trinity brought the Jeffs their third NESCAC trophy. Courtney Hanlon ’11 scored the game-winner just six minutes into overtime.

The team placed Geneva Lloyd ’13 and Randi Zukas ’11 on the NESCAC All-Conference First Team, while Hanlon and Kirsten Dier ’10 landed on the Second Team. Dier also became one of seven finalists for the 2010 Hockey Humanitarian Award.

But perhaps more importantly, the hockey team won the heart of its coach. Plumer is extremely proud of his players. He describes Dennett, a forward, as “arguably the most valuable player we’ve ever had in the program. She wins face-offs. She plays unbelievable defense. She’s just the definition of clutch. She may not be the prettiest in any skill, but she puts it all together and the sum is way bigger than the parts. I’d probably describe her as the soul of the team.”

Of Dier, who plays defense and earned Phi Beta Kappa honors, he says: “She is the sweetest human being you could ever meet. Yet this really gentle person turns into the fiercest competitor on the ice. This is her outlet, and she absolutely would cut your heart out if she had to, yet she’d be the first one to sew it back in when the game’s over.”

Going into the Frozen Four, “we weren’t going to sit back on last year’s national championship,” Dier says. That night in St. Peter, forward Megan Curry ’11 scored the breakaway goal, with 7:20 remaining in the third, that gave the Jeffs a 3-0 lead. That’s when Dier knew her team would win. “We very rarely are going to give up two goals,” she says. “That sealed the deal for us.”

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The next night, Lloyd opened the scoring for the Jeffs, but Norwich came out hard. The 7-2 final score “makes it look like an easier game than it actually was,” Dennett says. “For the first 10 minutes or so we were on defense most of the time.” Twice, goalie Caroline Hu ’11 stopped Norwich forwards from inside the slot. Stephanie Clegg ’12 scored the fourth goal during a two-skater advantage. “At that point we really felt like there was no way [Norwich] could come back,” Plumer says. “It took the wind out of their sails.”

With 1:10 remaining, Molly Malloy ’11 scored the final goal of the season. When the clock hit one minute, “the bench was just electrified,” Dennett remembers. “It’s just so hard to describe. Pure happiness, pure excitement.” That the team was the first at Amherst to win multiple national team championships “is something for other people,” Plumer says. “We were doing it for the ability to feel good about what we accomplished rather than to brag that we were the first to do it twice.”

Hu made 19 saves that night, ending her season with a 16-1-1 record. Hu, Clegg, Dennett and Dier were named to the All-Tournament Team, and Zukas became the first Amherst women’s hockey player named to an All-America First Team. Plumer, who arrived at Amherst in 2003 from Bowdoin, finished his seventh season with a 118-57-16 record. “Coach Plumer is such an amazingly kindhearted, competitive, demanding coach,” Dier says. “He’s never going to let you settle for anything less than what he thinks you can do.”

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Shannon Finucane '12 (top) and Caroline Stedman '12. They helped lead Amherst all the way to the Final Four.

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Women’s Basketball punched its ticket to the Final Four with an 80-65 win over Babson College in the national quarterfinal game. In a come-from-behind thriller a night earlier, Amherst erased a 15-point second-half deficit en route to a 71-66 win over Williams. At the Williams game, guard Shannon Finucane ’12 led the Jeffs with 20 points, while Leyman, a forward and captain, had 19 points and 11 rebounds. “We learned a lot from that” comeback, Leyman says: “You can’t start slow because it’s so hard to work back.”

Early this season, Kim Fiorentino ’12, the only player to start all 33 games last year, got sidelined by an injury. Jaci Daigneault ’11, an All-American last year, was injured midway through this season and didn’t start again. Two other players also missed the majority of the season because of injuries. But others stepped up and improved, becoming key players this year. “There were a lot of fighters,” Coach Gromacki says. “They were hungry after making it to the Final Four last year. We went into every game the same way. We took every game seriously. It didn’t matter who we were playing.”

At the Final Four, Amherst, the only undefeated team there, took to the floor with a starting lineup that had led the Jeffs into the semis with a 31-0 record. Guards Finucane and Caroline Stedman ’12 joined forwards Jackie Renner ’12, Lem Atanga McCormick ’12 and Leyman to start. Stedman, a D3hoops.com Regional Player of the Year, averaged just 2.2 points per game last year but emerged as the Jeffs’ leading scorer this year and also ranked among the team leaders in steals, assists, blocks and nearly every shooting statistic.

At halftime, the Jeffs led 28-18, and Leyman led all players with 10 points and nine rebounds. But the Bears narrowed the lead, and midway through the second half, Leyman remembers thinking it was going to be a long 10 minutes. “That was the grind-it-out stretch,” she says. “They started making some big shots.” Washington took its first lead of the game with three minutes remaining and led by two with 1:16 to play, but Atanga McCormick’s jumper with 50 seconds on the clock tied the score at 64-64 and marked the final points of regulation. In overtime, though, “we got worn a little thin,” Leyman says.

Going into overtime, “I felt pretty good,” Gromacki says. “We’d stopped them in the last 22 seconds—twice—from scoring. Then I realized, pretty quickly, that we were the team that had run out of gas.” The Bears, in turn, had momentum to spare. “You hate to lose,” the coach says. “I just realized it wasn’t meant to be this year. Someday, hopefully, it will be meant to be.”

Back in the locker room and at the hotel, the women refocused. “We said there was no way we were going to come away from this weekend losing two,” Leyman says. “We had something to prove.” They proved it the next night with a 56-44 consolation-game victory over the University of Rochester. “That’s what makes me excited about this season,” Gromacki says. “It showed what we’re about.”

Gromacki ends his third season at Amherst with an 87-7 record. He was named the 2010 NESCAC Coach of the Year and a 2010 D3hoops.com Regional Coach of the Year. “He gives us confidence, and we know that he expects a lot of us,” Leyman says of Gromacki, who coached at St. Lawrence University, Temple University and Hamilton before arriving at Amherst in 2007.

For Gromacki and the team, the consolation game was the unofficial start of next season, when all players will return. Energy is high. “I can’t wait to get back to the gym,” Leyman says.

Hockey photos by Brian Fowler; basketball photos by Marc Featherly