Cornell women’s hockey went undefeated at home, didn’t lose a single ECAC regular-season game and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings during the 2019-2020 season. But it’s three wins away from the ultimate prize, one that only four teams have claimed since the implementation of the women’s NCAA Tournament at the beginning of this century.
Since the end of a 2018-2019 campaign that saw Cornell reach its first Frozen Four since 2012 before losing to Minnesota in the national semifinals, the Red had set its sights on a national championship. But overtaking the game’s most dominant programs — one of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Clarkson or Minnesota-Duluth has won each of the 19 titles — is no easy task. Making the Frozen Four was nice, but this year, the team expects to be the last one left.
“We went to the Frozen Four, but we didn’t win it all, so we still have a burr in our side to take the next step and take it to the next level,” said head coach Doug Derraugh ’91 in October, before the start of his 15th season behind the bench. “We are always expecting to compete with the best teams in the nation, and this year is no different.”
“This year I think it’s ‘what can we do to take it a step farther than we did last year?’ and remembering that feeling and how awesome it was, but wanting it back badly enough that we can take it to the next game and even further,” said junior forward Finley Frechette.
In women’s college hockey, the story of the 2000s has been dominant dynasties. And while Cornell has been solidly in Tier 1B — it’s been to the NCAA Tournament in seven of the last 10 seasons and has been to four Frozen Fours, including last year’s — it hasn’t been able to catch up to the sport’s big-time powers: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Clarkson and Minnesota-Duluth.
One of those four teams has won all 19 national championship games. A team has repeated as champions seven times. As the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, set to face Mercyhurst on Saturday, Cornell hopes this is the year a new team takes home the hardware.
But women’s college hockey is deeper than ever — upsets in conferences across the country point, maybe, to the end of a few teams’ supremacy.
“It takes a little bit of everything at this time of year, but I think that all eight teams that are in the NCAA Tournament this year can win it,” Derraugh said.
Frechette said she thinks this could be the year a new team wins a national championship.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “And with that being said, I really hope it’s Cornell that is able to finally accomplish that feat.”
With either No. 4 seed Minnesota or WCHA champion Ohio State awaiting a national semifinal matchup if the Red beats Mercyhurst, Cornell is likely to have to go through Minnesota and No. 2 seed Wisconsin — the sport’s most dominant programs in recent years — to claim a national championship.
“We are the No. 1 seed but at the same time the teams we’re going to be going up against have had more success in NCAA Tournaments throughout history, so it’s an interesting mix,” Frechette said. “But that makes it extremely exciting to know people want to get us; we have the target on our backs.”
Up until the midpoint of this season, it was the Wisconsin and Minnesota show atop the national rankings, until finally Cornell — in the midst of a near-perfect regular season, one that saw it lose just one game and go 19-0-3 in conference play — jumped the Gophers and Badgers.
Derraugh said he isn’t concerned with whether his team is getting as much attention as squads like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“I really don’t pay a whole lot of attention to social media or the news [so] I don’t really know whether they’ve been getting more attention than we have or we’ve been getting more attention,” Derraugh said. “To be honest, my players would back that up because I’m a little lost when it comes to news and the media.”
If this is the year that a new team topples the Goliaths of the sport that’s still relatively new on the national stage, Cornell is the squad to do it: In addition to a favorable first-round matchup against the CHA champion Lakers, the Red has a star goaltender, dynamic goal-scorers and a deep lineup.
Junior goaltender Lindsay Browning set the program’s single-season shutout record with 12 — the most in the country — and her 0.914 goals against average is tops in the nation. Cornell boasts prolific goal-scorers senior Kristin O’Neill (25-15—40) and junior Maddie Mills (20-21—41) and is anchored on the blueline by senior defenseman Jaime Bourbonnais, who was named the league’s best defenseman and tied for the ECAC lead with 34 assists.
Despite being the No. 1 seed, Cornell comes into the tournament without the national attention of the midwestern heavyweights, and with a lot to prove: It can be the team to end two decades of a few teams’ title supremacy and boldly add itself to the shortlist of national powerhouses.