This Tommie Women's Hockey season could be compared to the classic kids board game Chutes and Ladders.
Coach Tom Palkowski's team struggled to find consistency in the first half of the season. For every step up the ladder, UST slid backwards down the chutes for a restart.
The St. Thomas players persevered, though, and their rejuvenated squad finds itself still in the game.
They're riding a seven-game unbeaten streak into the eight-team NCAA tournament, and made this week's national top-10 poll at No. 7. It's as if the Tommies, in board-game lingo, just landed on square No. 28 and shot up the ladder to space No. 84.
"We knew this team had this potential," Palkowski explained, "but it took longer than we expected. Everybody has stepped up their game. It's been fun to watch."
St. Thomas takes a 14-10-4 record and a head of steam to New York for Saturday's quarterfinal playoff game against three-time defending NCAA champion Plattsburgh State.
The top-ranked Cardinals know all about reaching square No. 100 and the big blue ribbon. They are 25-1-1 this season and 135-6-6 over the last five seasons. Yes, six defeats in five seasons.
Key graduation losses, a young roster, a tough early schedule, and one key mid-season injury made this a unique season for St. Thomas.
There was no quick fix for the graduation void caused by the absence of All-America Megan Juricko plus, Nuala Flood, Rachel Friberg, Tori Bailey, Courtney Umland, Karina Marette and Hannah Burns, especially on UST's depleted defensive corps.
The Tommies went to work with just two seniors and four juniors among 19 non goalies this season.
"We graduated seven great kids, and they all were huge contributors," Palkowski said. "Those were some big shoes to fill. We just had a little bit of learning we had to experience, especially on our blue line with all the newcomers."
The defending MIAC regular-season and playoff champions were coming off a 20-6-2 season, and returned senior All-America Kathryn Larson and a solid goalie in Kenzie Torpy. But UST managed just a 1-5-2 record (0-3-1 at home) in those first few weeks.
That stretch included:
- an 0-3 record against Wisconsin teams River Falls, Superior and Eau Claire;
- a win and a tie against Gustavus;
- a loss and tie against Bethel;
- and a 3-2 home loss to Hamline in which a 2-0 lead disappeared.
A mid-December snowstorm wiped out a two-game trip to UW-Stevens Point. In the short run, that caused a 38-day break from competition. In the long run, those two makeup games created some busy weeks later in the season.
Adding to the challenge, standout sophomore forward Becca Zarembinski (37 points in 46 career games) was sidelined by injury in what turned into a 10-game absence.
The Toms showed signs of a turnaround on Jan. 28 when they rallied from three goals down and beat St. Ben's in overtime, 4-3. That was UST's first comeback win after a 3-0 deficit in the 19-year history of the program.
St. Thomas then made the tough road trek to Moorhead and split two one-goal decisions against the playoff-bound Cobbers.
That next weekend, a 3-0 loss on a Friday night at Augsburg felt like another ride down the chute. It was UST's first shutout loss in 29 games. In a post-game meeting back at the Mendota rink, Palkowski shared some blunt feedback to his players.
"We had a meeting after we got beat by Augsburg," the coach explained. "We talked to a few players, and I would call that our turning point of the season. Some of the kids were just maybe going through the motions, and after that night, it was like a light bulb went off."
The Tommies jumped to a 4-0 lead over the Auggies the next night, and won 4-2. They followed that up four days later with a 4-2 road victory at UW-Stevens Point, avenging a 6-1 loss to the Pointers five weeks earlier.
The next weekend, UST took a 1-1 road tie and 8-2 home win with St. Olaf to close the regular season in fourth place.
St. Thomas then won three MIAC playoff games in a nine-day stretch to claim the conference playoff crown for the fourth year in a row. In less than a 24-hour span, the Toms topped fifth-seed Hamline, 6-1, then rallied on the road from a 2-0 deficit to beat top-seed Gustavus in overtime, 3-2.
In last Saturday's playoff championship contest at Augsburg, the Toms erased a 2-1 third-period deficit to edge the second-seeded Auggies in overtime, 3-2, and claimed the MIAC's automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs. Freshman Allison Parnell scored just her second collegiate goal to score the game winner against a 19-win team.
That was the Tommies' third sudden-death OT postseason victory in the last four seasons, and a freshman scored all three goals: (Hannah Bird in 2014 vs. Cobbers; Rachel Werdin 10 days ago vs. Gustavus); and now Parnell.
The Tommies become the first women's hockey program to win a playoff title with three victories as the No. 4 or 5 seed. They're just the second MIAC women's hockey team to win a road playoff championship game.
Saturday's victory made history on another front: This marks the first time an MIAC institution won a conference team championship (regular-season or playoff) in each of the eight winter sports in one season. (St. Thomas won in seven of the eight winter sports in 2015-16).
In Division III women's hockey, where parity improves each season, the teams that grind out the close wins seem to have a shot to still be playing in March. In the Tommies' first 16 games, they went 1-4 in one-goal decisions. Since Jan. 27, they are 5-1 in such games.
In the three conference playoff victories, Torpy was on top of her game in net. She was 3-0 with a .952 save percentage and a 1.51 goals-against average with 100 saves. She allowed just one goal in the third periods and in both overtimes. The sophomore has 33 career wins.
Bulldogs Larson, Leah Schwartzman and Zarembinski have done their part. In the current seven-game unbeaten streak, Larson has nine goals and seven assists. Over the last 17 games, Schawartman has seven goals and 13 assists. In nine games since returning from her injury rehab, Zarembinski has five goals and seven assists.
The Toms lost 1-0 in overtime to Plattsburgh in the 2014 national semifinals. They fell again 4-1 on the road to the Cardinals in 2015 in the quarterfinals, a game capped by an empty-net goal for Plattsburgh.
"We've played them as well as anybody two times we've been out there," Palkowski said. "We're looking forward to the challenge.
"It's a different role to be the underdog. When you start winning and having fun, you don't feel the pressure. You can just out and play."
Who knows? Maybe the Toms can land on square 28 again this Saturday, and their Chutes and Ladders season will move another step closer to Candyland.
Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working in his 23rd season at St. Thomas and 29th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.
If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at email@example.com