May 17, 2011

From NEHJ: For Norwich women, mission accomplished

by Mike Zhe

A year after losing the NCAA Division 3 final, Norwich took the final step by beating RIT, 5-2, for the national championship. (photo: Jennifer Langille/Norwich University)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

It might have been the longest 17 hours of Sophie Leclerc’s life.

Players on the Norwich University women’s hockey team skated off the Kreitzberg Arena ice two months ago with dueling emotions, neither of them good. Part was disbelief after outshooting Manhattanville, 44-12, in the ECAC East championship game — and losing, 4-2 — and part was an almost overwhelming disappointment knowing they might have blown their chances for the NCAA Division 3 tournament.

“Pretty grim feeling in the locker room,” said Leclerc, a team captain from nearby Barre, Vt.

The tournament field wouldn’t be announced until 10 the next morning. Captain Kelsey Cone (Manchester, Vt.) got the players together to go out for dinner, and they tried to convince one another that their body of work — a 23-4-1 record, the 17-game winless streak they took into the league title game — would be enough for one of the two at-large bids to the seven-team NCAAs.

“Pretty long and painful,” Norwich coach Mark Bolding said. “I think some of the seniors thought their seasons, their careers were done. It was nerve-wracking. We were just praying we’d get a shot to get in and compete.”

After a restless night, team members found their way to desktops and laptops for the online announcement.

“You didn’t know,” said Leclerc, who was at her family’s home in Barre, “if it’s going to be the best moment of your life or the worst.”

It turned out to be the best moment — at least for 12 more days, when a better moment eclipsed it.

In just its fourth season as a varsity program, Norwich took the final step it couldn’t take a year ago, winning the Div. 3 national championship with a 5-2 victory over the Rochester Institute of Technology at Frank Ritter Arena in Rochester, N.Y.

Leclerc, who led Div. 3 in scoring with 26-28-54 totals and was named ECAC East Player of the Year, and junior forward Melissa Rundlett (Saco, Maine) each scored two goals in the win, which cemented the program’s status as a national player. A year ago, the Cadets reached the NCAA final before losing to Amherst, 7-2.

“Just to see the program over the years, it definitely is a surreal feeling,” Rundlett said, “almost like it couldn’t happen.”

Fans in Northfield, Vt., have been watching hockey at Norwich for more than a century — men’s hockey. That program celebrated its centennial last season with a Div. 3 championship, its third over the past 12 years.

Bolding, who guided the women’s club team for five years before it made the jump to varsity in 2007-08, was a standout player for the Norwich men in the early 1990s. He was also an assistant coach on the 1999-2000 team that won the program’s first NCAA title before taking over the club squad.

“Oh, the club years were fun,” Bolding said. “We actually had to teach some kids how to skate.”

But the transition was a relatively smooth one. The first varsity season was a respectable 12-10-2 (good for fourth place in ECAC East), and the last three have seen a national title, three trips to the NCAA tournament and two conference titles.

Rundlett, a four-year varsity player at Kents Hill School in Maine, said she was sold on the program and Bolding early on.

“Just hearing him talking about hockey and the rich tradition that the men’s side had … he wanted the women’s side to be the same way,” she said.

“The men’s program established us right away,” said Bolding, who was named Div. 3 Coach of the Year for the second season in a row. “It’s an easy gauge to throw out to new players — ‘Let’s be like those guys.’ … We’ll bring recruits to the men’s games.”

Still, playing for Norwich wasn’t even on Leclerc’s radar when she graduated from Spaulding High School in 2005, the recipient of the “Miss Vermont Hockey” award from the Burlington Free Press. She was headed to the University of Vermont, a Div. 1 program, but she was bringing some knee problems with her.

Her fourth knee surgery wiped out her freshman season at UVM. She played some club hockey but couldn’t get the clearance to compete on the varsity squad. By Christmas of her sophomore year, she decided that instead of hanging her skates up, she’d try the Div. 3 program close to home that she’d originally wanted no part of.

“Absolutely not. It was probably the last place,” she said. “It was so close to home — you don’t want to go to college at home. You want to go to college to get away. But you spend a year-and-a-half at a big school, you appreciate a smaller one.”

She led the Cadets in scoring as a sophomore with 19-26-45 totals and led them to the Div. 3 championship game as a junior with a 37-point campaign. The once far-fetched notion that the team was good enough to compete for a national championship wasn’t far-fetched anymore.

“I think the only person who said that was our coach, and they’re paid to say that,” Leclerc said. “Maybe after hearing him repeat it every day in practice we believed it.”

She wraps up her Norwich career as the program’s all-time leader in points (163) and is tied for 11th all-time in Div. 3. At the end of March, she was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” column, and is currently attending grad school and studying exercise physiology at Northeastern.

Junior defensemen Sarianne Lynn (Wethersfield, Conn.) and Amanda Wilks joined Leclerc on the ECAC East first team, while Julie Fortier was a second-team selection. Freshman forward Renee Lortie was named to the All-Rookie team.

Before their national semifinal game against Gustavus Adolphus, and cognizant of the championship game flameout against Amherst the year before, Bolding told his players they had six good periods of hockey left to play. They were written on a board in the locker room and crossed off one by one, until the mission was complete and the ultimate goal was … well, swallowed.

“We had a little taste of the cookie my first two years,” Rundlett said. “We wanted the whole thing this year.”

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com