By Liam Sample
The No. 4 Plattsburgh State women’s hockey team (8-1-0) hosted the annual Busters Cardinal/Panther Classic Nov. 26 and 27 at Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena, where the Cardinals finished third overall and went 1-1. Four of the top six teams in the country were in attendance as implications in the national rankings were on the line.
The first Cardinal-Panther Classic dates back to the 2005-2006 season, with this year being the 17th annual tournament. Typically, the host alternates between Plattsburgh and Middlebury, but due to scheduling, this was the second straight season where Plattsburgh hosted. The tournament is set to return to Middlebury next season.
Assistant coach Julia Duquette, who participated in the tournament as both a player and a coach, said that hosting this tournament is “something we love to do.”
“It means a lot obviously in terms of how the year plays out at the end of the year with the seeding, but it’s just great to have all these teams come in and be able to have these matchups,” Duquette said.
The Cardinals lost both of its games in last season’s tournament, both by a score of 4-3 in overtime to Endicott to open the tournament and Elmira in the consolation game. The team last won the tournament in the 2016-2017 season.
The opening match of the weekend was between, at the time, the No. 6 University of Wisconsin River-Falls Falcons (8-1-0) and No. 3 Plattsburgh.
The University of Wisconsin River-Falls is located around 40 miles outside of Minneapolis and the team had the farthest commute to Plattsburgh of the tournament participants. According to the team’s Head Coach Joe Cranston, the team left at 3 a.m. Nov. 25, and the commute was about 12 hours.
“It’s just hard to keep everybody healthy and keep everybody going and with the sleep and the change of schedule, but, it’s awesome. We knew it was going to be a lot of fun coming out here,” Cranston said.
As a young team with seven first-year players and four sophomores, it could be intimidating to go into a tournament against such talent, but sophomore Mattie Norton said the message was to “just come out and play your hardest.”
“We know what to do, we practice it everyday. We just have to come out and perform and be ready to go,” Norton said. “We can’t treat it any different or make it anything bigger than it needs to be.”
The first period was back and forth, with both team’s being deadlocked at 11 shots at piece at the break. Falcon’s sophomore forward Bailey Olsen scored 7:33 into the game off a wrist shot in the slot to put her team ahead 1-0.
Early on in the second, captain and graduate student Sara Krauseneck scored a goal for the highlight reel. After a Falcons second goal was stopped because of a last second block from senior Kendall Wasik, the puck was moved back to the point.
Krauseneck skated over and blocked two consecutive shots from the opposing defenders and chased the loose puck down ice. She proceeded to steal the puck from behind the goal, wrap it around towards the front of the net and beat the goalie with a backhanded shot while falling down.
The Cardinals rolled this momentum into another score when it won a faceoff in the defensive zone and graduate student Holly Schmelezer moved up ice quickly with the puck. From the far boards, she sent the puck to the front of the net where it bounced off of sophomore Riley Calhoun’s stick and into the goal for Plattsburgh’s first lead of the day.
River Falls tied it up with 10 seconds left in the period when senior Maddie McCollins took off and received a beautiful pass in the neutral zone to set up a breakaway. She made a deke move in the crease to score on the backhand.
In the third, the Falcons took the lead a little before seven minutes into the period with a goal from junior Aubrey Nelvin. Plattsburgh couldn’t tie it up before the end of regulation, as the Falcons advanced to the championship game and the Cardinals would play in the consolation game, both taking place the next day. This was the first loss of the season for Plattsburgh.
“We told the team that we needed to learn from it and move on quickly,” Duquette said. “We wanted the team to process the sting of the loss, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on it. [The next day] was a new day, a new game, a new opponent and we needed to be at our best if we wanted to come out of the tournament with a win.”
Senior Lilla Nease made 22 saves, tying her second most on the season at the time. She said the team was “pretty upset” after the game, but it shifted focus to the next day. Norton said after any loss, it “isn’t a fun locker room” to be a part of, but said the team “didn’t play bad at all” and there were “little bounces that didn’t go our way.”
The next game was between the, at the time, the No. 4 Elmira Soaring Eagles (7-2-0) and the No.1 Middlebury Panthers (4-1-0.) In a defensive battle, Middlebury came out on top 3-1 behind a two goal effort from first-year forward Britt Nawrocki. Junior goaltender Sophia Merageas put up 23 saves en route to a win.
The consolation game took place Nov. 27 between Elmira and Plattsburgh. These teams have a historic rivalry, being formerly in the same conference, and met three times last season, with Plattsburgh owning a 2-1-0 record in those games.
“It’s just how we shape ourselves after that loss that makes our team,” Nease said. “Elmira is a big rival of ours. Everyone was pretty excited for that game and I think we knew we had to bring it because we definitely didn’t want a situation like last year where we came out of our own tournament 0-2.”
The Cardinals came out flying, starting with a goal under 10 minutes into the game. On the powerplay, junior Mae Olshansky controlled the puck from the far red circle, sending a perfect pass into the crease where graduate student Nicole Unsworth tapped it in for the goal.
First-year forward Grace Yarkosky scored her first collegiate goal in the final two minutes of the period, Wasik began the play with a beautiful pass to Yarkosky in the slot, where the first-year shot the puck in the middle of a spin move into the net.
From there, it was all Plattsburgh, the team scored five more goals, with seven different goal scorers as it downed Elmira 7-0. The team registered four powerplay goals on five attempts as this game was the Cardinal’s largest margin of victory ever over the Soaring Eagles.
Duquette, a former defender, mentioned that three first-year defenders were in the lineup due to injuries. She said these players “really showed up” and played “their best game to date.”
Four players registered two or more points, with Olshansky having three assists and Norton having a goal and two assists.
“You come here and you think ‘Yeah Elmira, I know it’s a big rival,’ but you don’t truly understand it until you play against them or you are part of the atmosphere, it truly is just different,” Norton said. “It’s not until you hit five, six [goals] that you’re like ‘okay I think we’ve got this.’ You still play every shift like it’s a 0-0 game.”
After the tournament, Norton was the lone Cardinal named to the All-Tournament Team. She said it meant a lot to receive this honor, but “I’m not there without the rest of my team.”
This tremendous effort from the Plattsburgh offense was not without opposition, as Elmira still tallied 34 shots, all of which were saved by Nease. She posted a career high in saves and her first shutout of the season, she was named the First Star of the game.
Nease appeared twice against Elmira last year, having a win and an overtime loss against the Soaring Eagles.
“I think our younger defense really stepped up,” Nease said. “We had [defenders] picking up sticks and so for me, it was a very visible game. Most of the saves I made, I saw and that’s a huge part into that shutout.”
Duquette had high praise for Nease, saying she was “lights out.”
“That’s what we need from her and I know that she’s certainly able to rise to the occasion as you could see this weekend,” Duquette said.
The championship game did not disappoint, as the Panthers and Falcons battled to win the tournament. After two periods, the teams were tied at one. McCollins scored the go-ahead under eight minutes into the third period. With less than 20 seconds left in regulation, Nawrocki tied the game up for Middlebury and sent it into overtime.
First-year MaKenna Aure was the hero, as she scored on a beautiful breakaway move to win the tournament for the University of Wisconsin River Falls. The Falcons snapped Middlebury’s 31 game win streak, with the last Panther loss coming in 2020, on top of breaking Middlebury’s streak of winning the last two Cardinal/Panther Classics.
“It was just an awesome tournament and just fun to be out here, but it’s more fun to win it and [I’m] really proud of it,” Cranston said. “Our backs were kind of against the wall. We were not supposed to do this, so I have a really young hockey team and we’re really happy.”
The Falcons were the lowest ranked team entering the tournament, with it being only the second time in school history the team has played in this tournament.
By winning the tournament, this week’s USCHO DIII Women’s Hockey Poll got shaken up, with River Falls being at No. 2, Middlebury being at No. 3, Plattsburgh being at No. 4, and Elmira being at No. 7. This is the first week Middlebury was not the top team in the country since Nov. 29, 2021.
Plattsburgh goes on the road, playing two of the top four teams in the North Eastern Women’s Hockey League this weekend, Cortland Dec. 2 and Oswego Dec. 3
Duquette said the tournament was “certainly a good start to keeping the momentum.” She said the team returned to “business as usual” this week as it prepares for two important conference games. Plattsburgh is currently undefeated in NEWHL play.
“It’s an honor to be in a Plattsburgh State jersey, but whether we’re playing in our league, somebody outside, you always have a target on your back,” Norton said. “We start playing [against Cortland] how we finished [last] weekend.”
Krauseneck (25), in her own description, is laughing because of an abnormal series of events. She is on the ice during a penalty kill, which isn’t typical for her. She ended up with the puck behind the net and, “just tried tucking it into the net as I came around front and ended up on the ground in front of the goalie, and the puck was in the net. I was laughing at the weird situation and unsure how I snuck the puck in.”