Smashing Through Bedrock

With a March 4 win over Middlebury, the Amherst women’s ice hockey team exorcised its demons, took hold of the NESCAC trophy and punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament.

By Rebecca Binder ’02

There’s a section of game tape that Jim Plumer, head coach of women’s ice hockey, has probably watched a hundred times. It’s of this winter’s NESCAC championship game against Middlebury College, at Middlebury, during triple overtime. Watching the tape, it looks as if the Jeffs are just about out of gas.

They’re a little wobbly because they’re

flat-out tired. The women have arrived at the doorstep of the national championship tournament despite sputtering to a 3-4 season start. They regrouped to win or tie all but one game in the rest of the regular season, and then they took Williams College to overtime in a first-round conference tournament win. The next week, the Jeffs forced an extra period in an improbable win against Bowdoin College in the conference tournament semifinals. New England hasn’t seen this much extra-frame drama since Red Sox anchor David Ortiz dug in against a pinstriped dynasty late at night in October 2004.

The Williams win was sweet, and not only because Williams is Williams. The Amherst program had never won a postseason game. Ever. In fact, it was less than a month earlier that Amherst had beaten Williams for the first time in program history. And Bowdoin was definitive. Bowdoin has won the NESCAC championship twice in the past five years and tends to stick deep into the national tournament.

From top, Tarasai Karega ’09 and Krystyn Elek ’10.

Then came Middlebury. The Middlebury women took home national championship trophies in 2004, 2005 and 2006. They usually dominate the NESCAC. But not this year. Plumer’s game tape shows a wrap-around Amherst shot; Middlebury goalie Lani Wright sprawls and just barely gets a leg pad on the puck. The rebound goes to Anna MacLean ’09. Calmly, before the tape even notices her, MacLean flips the puck over Wright’s shoulder, ending, at 102 minutes, the longest game ever played in Division III women’s hockey.

With the win, Amherst exorcised its demons, took hold of the NESCAC trophy and punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament.

“There,” Plumer says, pausing the tape over a celebratory pile-on of purple jerseys. He turns around, beaming. “How great is that?”

There are as many ways to explain Amherst’s rise as there are players on the team. Forward Tarasai Karega ’09, for example, notched 37 points over a balanced 20-goal, 17-assist season, and led the nation with eight game-winning tallies. MacLean, Lindsey Harrington ’09 and Kate Dennett ’10 picked up where Karega left off: the three combined for 42 goals and 48 assists on the year. Rookie goaltender Krystyn Elek ’10, meanwhile, registered a 1.64 goals-against-average and a ridiculous .939 save percentage, good for third in the country. United States College Hockey Online twice named Elek its Defensive Player of the Week; the NESCAC tabbed her Rookie of the Year. She also grabbed a second-team RBK Women’s Hockey All-America slot.

After beating Middlebury in the NESCAC championship, the Jeffs pulled off a gritty first-round win in the NCAA championship tournament over the Rochester Institute of Technology. With that, a team that until this year had never won a postseason game, never been to the NCAA tournament and never beaten Williams, Bowdoin or Middlebury launched itself into the national semifinal round, the Frozen Four. Amherst wouldn’t find a way to sneak another winning shot, though. The Jeffs lost to the eventual national champion, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and then fell short in the tournament’s consolation game, ending a head-turning 20-7-3 season.

The NESCAC, meanwhile, put underclassmen Elek, Karega and defender Kristin Dier ’10 on its first all-conference team, where they joined two seniors from Middlebury and one from Bowdoin. That bodes well for next season: Amherst will be the only team in the NESCAC to return conference first-team selections. But that doesn’t mean the team will take it easy in the early going. “This year, there was this sense that we had nothing to lose,” Plumer says. “By the end, we were gambling with house money. We didn’t have any pressure on us. Next year, though, we’ll have a target on our chests. We’ll have to work even harder, and try even harder to keep things in perspective.”

This year, the team’s six leading scorers were underclassmen, and Elek has three more years to patrol the crease. Plumer is a great recruiter. A Colby College graduate, he came to Amherst from the Bowdoin sideline, and his infectious love for the NESCAC (and for Amherst in particular) is starting to pay off. Still, if you ask Plumer and his star players about the team’s strengths, they all point to an unexpected group: this year’s senior class, and its incredible, selfless leadership.

The seniors might be underrepresented in the box score, but Plumer says that they were the backbone of this year’s team. The younger players think so too: when asked to sit for an interview, one of the younger stars refused, nudging me instead toward one of her less visible senior teammates. “When this year’s seniors were seniors in high school,” Plumer says, “this program won three games. When they chose Amherst, I don’t think they could have realistically had any expectation this was going to happen.”

Maybe not, but they’ve enjoyed it just the same. “The Frozen Four was the absolute coolest thing I’ve ever experienced,” tri-captain Alena Harrison ’07 says. “It was so great to spend that time with my team.” And, she says with a grin, “there were a lot of camera crews there.” Elek, the goalie, could talk for hours about reserve goalie Lindsay Grabowski ’07. “Lindsay’s the most amazing person I’ve ever played with,” Elek says. “She works her butt off, and she’s a leader. Having her there helped me feel comfortable, and she gave me all the support in the world.”

Amherst didn’t just break new ground this year; it smashed through the bedrock of the hockey world. Tri-captain Kirsten Forsberg ’07 says she’ll “remember that feeling of winning, of being competitive”—and of beating Williams. Plumer talks about the national championship consolation game, the last time Amherst laced up. “That game was emotional for all of us,” he says. “We wanted that one more game together. The team’s statistics will never tell the story of how it really happened. For all of us to be a part of that—that’s something we’ll all take with us for the rest of our lives."

Binder, a lawyer, lives in the Boston area.