Queens Without Crowns BC looks to claim the throne

Kenzie Kent wanted to be perfectly clear.

She leaned forward in her chair, her piercing eyes neither wavering nor breaking contact with mine, her hands folded calmly on the table.

I asked Kent a direct question—whether the 2014-15 Boston College women’s hockey season was a success—and she gave me a direct answer. She wasted no time, ready with the response as soon as I finished the question.

“Nope,” she said. “We didn’t win.”

Kent did not qualify her statement. She did not add that the Eagles won 34 games last season, a school record. She did not say that BC had a 27-game unbeaten streak, another record. She did not mention that the Eagles won every single game at home, and they did not lose a conference game all season. She did not boast that BC claimed the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner and two of the top three scorers in the nation.

She could have, but she didn’t.

BC did not win the national championship. The season was not successful. Nothing could change that.

Our conversation charged onward.

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It sounds a bit absurd, but those are the kind of expectations surrounding BC hockey—both men’s and women’s—year after year. While the men’s team has taken home the national championship four times since 2001, the women have yet to win a title of their own.

Oh, how close they have come. BC has made the Frozen Four in four of the past five years, tied with the University of Minnesota for the most during that stretch. BC head coach Katie Crowley won the STX/AHCA Division I Women’s Coach of the Year in 2015 for overseeing the best team in BC history. By all accounts, BC has one of the top three most storied women’s hockey programs in the country.

Yet there is only one real tangible measure of success in sports—trophies.

Last season was a record-breaking year, but the Eagles put up a goose egg in the title department. BC lost to Harvard in the Beanpot Championship, to Boston University in the Women’s Hockey East Championship, and to Harvard once again in the Frozen Four.

Three chances for hardware, three big whiffs by the No. 1 team in the country.

“When it really mattered, we didn’t show up,” Kent said. “That was the biggest issue.”

The big stage has been the Eagles’ kryptonite, as BC has yet to advance to the national championship game in its 21-year history. The pieces have been there, but the results aren’t what BC would like them to be. This year, the Eagles believe they have the tools to change that.

“I think our players have learned from last year,” Crowley said. “Our leaders have passed that along to the younger kids, and especially the freshmen.”

BC didn’t lose much from last season—defenseman and Patty Kaz Top 10 Finalist Emily Pfalzer graduated and will leave the biggest hole. The freshman class will nevertheless play a big role, primarily in supplying depth for this season and star potential for the years ahead.

Grace Bizal will have the chance to step into Pfalzer’s role as an offensive defenseman with a strong shot from the point. A two-time member of the United States U-18 team, Bizal was a finalist for the 2015 Minnesota Ms. Hockey award.

Just as Kent had a breakout offensive season in her freshman campaign last year, newcomer Makenna Newkirk could see similar success. A forward from Scottsdale, Ariz., Newkirk didn’t waste any time scoring in college—she had an assist in each of her first two games at BC against the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“The freshmen have been working extremely hard, and they’ve done a great job of gelling with their teammates,” Crowley said. “I’m very impressed by their development so far.”

As far as returning forwards go, the Eagles won’t be fixing what ain’t broke, but they are shaking up the lines a bit. Last season, the dynamite top line pairing of Kent, Alex Carpenter, and Haley Skarupa shredded opposing defenses on a consistent basis. For the first two games this season, Skarupa was bumped to the second line in favor of Tori Sullivan. It wasn’t a demotion for Skarupa—simply a change of pace for Crowley’s offense.

Carpenter, meanwhile, remains the best player in women’s college hockey, and there is no telling how much higher she can elevate her game. She instantly improves the other players on the ice with her, even though those players are supremely talented in their own right.

It’s telling, then, that Skarupa was moved from the first line, as if to say that she is now capable of leading her own group of players. Skarupa was paired with Andie Anastos and Meghan Grieves for the first two games, and the switch paid immediate dividends. Each of the three players are tied for second on the team with two points apiece.

The main problem that comes with assembling such a talented team with such a knack for winning is the lull of complacency that sets in after a few drubbings in the regular season. The Eagles beat every opponent they played for the first time—every loss or draw came after the opponent had already seen BC once.

Whether it was something about BC’s strategy that could be gathered from postgame tape or whether it was simply the Eagles underestimating their opponents after the initial decimation, a few teams found a way to exact revenge on the Eagles.

This strange phenomenon was most evident in BC’s matchups against Harvard last season. The Eagles obliterated the Crimson in every aspect of the game the day after Thanksgiving. Skarupa said she thought that game represented BC’s pinnacle last season—if the Eagles played their absolute best every night, this is what they could do.

But in subsequent meetings with the Crimson, something was different. Junior captain Andie Anastos said that BC remembered that 10-2 victory in late November all too well, entering the Beanpot final with a bit too much confidence.

“I think we were all like, ‘Oh, we beat them 10-2 last time. We can beat them again. We got this,’” Anastos said. “I think we were playing not to lose, rather than playing to win.”

It’s not that the Eagles played poorly against Harvard in the Beanpot and Frozen Four—BC dominated the shot count in both of those meetings. Save for back-to-back superhuman performances from Harvard goalie Emerance Maschmeyer, BC might have won those two handily. But the fact of the matter is that BC could not get the job done when it mattered most.

At the same time, though, Anastos conceded that the Eagles strongly believe that they can—and perhaps should—win every game they play. BC is still looking to strike the balance between respecting an opponent’s abilities while also recognizing that its own abilities, in most cases this season, are far superior.

There is noticeable and innate tension there—the Eagles have a great team that dominates opponents on a consistent basis, but this great and dominant team has yet to win a title. It’s difficult always being the favorite, since underdogs have the ability to play with more reckless abandon. Underdogs have nothing to lose—if they get crushed by a team like BC, that was the expected result anyway.

BC had everything to lose last season, and on three separate occasions, it lost everything.

The Eagles knew what was at stake in each of those losses—such ramifications would have been impossible to avoid in the buildup to the end of the season. It wasn’t a lack of talent, or effort, or heart that caused BC’s demise. It was the fact that the Eagles had a target on their backs the entire season, and opponents took advantage once they got second and third chances to slay the dragon.

This season, the Eagles are in a similar position with a preseason No. 2 ranking. Despite the fact that expectations are sky-high, BC did not receive a single No. 1 vote in the preseason rankings. Perhaps that says something about the perception that the Eagles can’t win the big one.

But that doesn’t matter to BC. The Eagles know what they can do.

“Regardless of who we’re playing,” Anastos said, “We come in expecting to win.”

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To say that this team’s “goal” is to win the national championship would be an understatement—it’s more of an expectation, even if they won’t say it.

The Eagles should not merely hope they can win a title—rather, they should expect it and anticipate it at the season’s close. They know the type of talent that this team has, and they know this year would be a wasted one without a national championship to show for it.

“The kids expect to be successful,” Crowley said. “Obviously, it’s hard not to have that national championship in your sights, but there are steps along the way that we have to attain before we get there.”

If BC comes rocketing out of the gate and strings together a series of performances resembling the first Harvard matchup, a trophy would be well within the Eagles’ grasp.

For this team, anything else would be a disappointment.

Images by Maggie Powers / Heights Graphic | Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff

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About Tom DeVoto

Tom is the Editor-in-Chief of The Heights Newsletter. He is also the A1 Editor of The Heights. You can follow him on Twitter @TLDeVoto.