Northeastern women’s hockey unassumingly hopped over the boards and skated toward the visiting locker room at Kelley Rink. Goaltender Brittany Bugalski pumped her fist, and the rest of the team gathered around her in their normal fashion before hitting the showers. But the Huskies’ 2-1 win was something special. They had just beaten Boston College women’s hockey at home, something no other team had done since March of 2014—63 games ago.
All but three of BC’s players had never lost a home game. For some of them, this was only their fifth loss in their entire careers, home or away. But instead of highlighting miscues and poor play, this loss highlights something else—the fact that BC has been a contender at the highest level for years. Losing, it seems, has become something of a foreign concept aside from near misses at a national championship.
The story has been written before. Over the last decade, Crowley has built the program from a perennial doormat to a national powerhouse. BC has won five Beanpots, three Hockey East Tournament titles, and reached six Frozen Fours since Crowley was promoted to head coach. It seemed like this year would be like any other: the Eagles looked like contenders not only for a Hockey East Championship, but for more.
Nothing about this season would be similar to previous ones, however, except for the result.
Many in the media wrote off the Eagles given the dropoff in talent from the graduating seniors, most notably 2015 Patty Kazmaier Award winner Alex Carpenter. The Eagles also lost Haley Skarupa, who finished second only to Carpenter in many scoring statistics. Nevertheless, those closest to Crowley knew of what she could do.
“I think they have it,” Digit Murphy, Crowley’s old coach, told The Heights after Crowley’s 2015-16 Person of the Year Award win. “I think they’re going to win it all next year.”
It was harder than Crowley might have even imagined. To compile the loss of six starters, the Eagles were decimated by mid-season departures and countless injuries to important players. Despite the trials and tribulations, they came within two wins of Murphy’s prediction, with a Frozen Four appearance to supplement a Beanpot and Hockey East title. In the process, Crowley, The Heights’ 2016-17 Coach of the Year, put together the most impressive season of her career.
“Obviously, last year was a successful year for us, but we wanted to put that behind us,” she said. “We wanted to push forward and look ahead and I think, overall, everyone did a good job of that.”
To win at such a level, Crowley would have to make massive adjustments following the 40-1 campaign in 2015-16. The Eagles lost three forwards on the United States Women’s National Team—Carpenter, Skarupa, and Dana Trivigno—as well as two first-line defensemen in Kaliya Johnson and Lexi Bender. Crowley, however, was prepared for these changes.
For starters, Crowley showed her prowess in a key area of the game: recruiting. Forwards Caitrin Lonergan and Delaney Belinskas each tallied 33 points. Lonergan never went more than two consecutive games without a point, and she also earned honors as Hockey East’s Rookie of the Month in October, November, and March. Caroline Ross was another notably talented freshman, bringing fresh legs to the blue line.
“I think the biggest jump from high school to college is making them feel comfortable,” Crowley said. “But the freshmen really stepped up and played well for us.”
The sophomore class proved to be vitally important to the Eagles’ success this season. Makenna Newkirk, a dynamic element from last year’s team, became a focal point on the power play and was one of the team’s leading scorers. Grace Bizal took on the crucial role of second-line defender, while Serena Sommerfield transitioned to the blue line to provide much-needed depth. Ryan Little, a gritty and physical forward, injected energy into the team’s tired lines. And Erin Connolly, a redshirt freshman from South Boston, brought a year of studying the mechanics of BC hockey to the table, too.
These players stepping up did not make things easy, however. Not only did talent graduate, but it became unavailable for other reasons. Bizal sustained a severe concussion in the middle of the season. Ross sustained a long-term injury late in the season, which was disclosed as a fluke injury in practice. Andie Anastos also sustained a minor upper-body injury, and was held out of a few games early in the season. Other notable losses included Tori Sullivan, who took a leave of absence early in the season, and Toni Ann Miano, who was dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons and did not play the second half of the season.
At one point, Crowley said that the team was down to only two starting defensemen—one of whom, Megan Keller, that was the nation’s best at the position—meaning that young and converted defenders had to pick up the slack while the veterans often logged double shifts trying to keep legs fresh. Yet even still, the Eagles succeeded, winning a Beanpot, Hockey East Championship, and making it to the Frozen Four.
“I thought that this year, of all the years I’ve been here, this one is up there on the adversity scale,” she said. “But when everyone stepped up, that was a huge moment for our team. That’s when they realized that everything is going to be okay.”
It helped that the Eagles’ current stars kept up their work. Anastos, the fiery captain, was equally as instrumental to the Eagles’ success, if not more so than her younger teammates. Scoring 42 points, of which 16 were goals, Anastos proved vital to both playmaking and timely scoring. Five of her goals came on the powerplay, and another was an overtime game-winner against Northeastern to secure the Hockey East title. Keller and Newkirk were not far behind, scoring 39 points, and along with Anastos averaged more than a point per game.
"I thought that this year, of all the years I’ve been here, this one is up there on the adversity scale. But when everyone stepped up, that was a huge moment for our team." Katie Crowley
This spread of point production means that Crowley knows what she’s doing. After losing world-class scoring expertise, the team was forced to adapt its scoring strategy. Instead of relying purely on talent, the Eagles were molded into a versatile team with threats across the ice, including a brick wall in the crease.
Katie Burt took the all-time franchise win total this season, victories which she deserved. She played the most games of any goalie in the NCAA with 37, and finished sixth in goals against average, up alongside netminders who faced fewer than a quarter of the shots than she did. She finished second in minutes played, fourth in shutouts, and sixth in save percentage. These numbers are not unique to this season, either, as Burt has been a two-named, ever-resilient barricade since her freshman year.
Assistant coach Courtney Kennedy was also instrumental to the development of Kali Flanagan and Keller’s defensive game, which was a huge component of the Eagles’ success this year. The two junior defensemen would routinely play 35 minutes per game, logging four-to-five minute shifts through important moments. One was on the ice for practically all special teams minutes, meaning that their success and endurance on the ice was potentially a linchpin for BC winning games, but it wasn’t. Forcing these two to step up didn’t lead to a mediocre team—it led to a great one.
Crowley adjusted to in-season issues on the fly, issues that compounded talent losses from the previous season. Anastos, Bizal, Ross, Miano, and Sullivan all played starring roles on the team, and while some losses were more significant in nature than others, losing any player for any period of time is tough to coach around. Keller, Flanagan, and the other defensemen were forced to step up and play new roles. It was a requirement that Burt be an immovable wall in the crease. You might think all of these challenges would lead to a sub-par performance from the Eagles. They didn’t.
BC made it to the Frozen Four without its two top talents from last year—not to mention six other missing players. The team’s defensemen played more than 30 minutes per game, and its star goaltender battled illness at the end of the season. They lost a 1-0 game in the final 17 seconds of the third period in the NCAA semifinals to a generationally talented Wisconsin squad.
If anything shows Crowley’s coaching prowess, it was this season. Crowley has been here before, through injuries and home losses, long practices and longer games. Practically the only thing left to achieve is the National Championship—and when you have Crowley, you have what it takes to win it.
Several facts in this article have been updated to reflect previous mistakes. The Heights regrets the errors.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor