|The Next Level|
After a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA national championship game in late March, women's hockey head coach Digit Murphy finished the postgame press conference, made her way out of the ground-floor conference room at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center Arena, and stooped for a group hug with her four young kids. Then, rising to kiss her husband, she forced a weak smile and said, "Well, at least I don't have to shave my head."
Murphy was referring to a commitment she and her assistant coaches had made back when the Bears were struggling to stay above .500. At the time the coach's locks seemed a sure bet to survive. In early January the Bears were 6-6-1 and going nowhere. Then, fueled by a renewed commitment to discipline on and off the ice and a deepening ease with the run-and-gun "torpedo" offense Murphy had installed at the start of the season, the team caught fire. The Bears blazed away on an 18-1-1 stretch that carried them to the ECAC North playoff championship and won them a berth in the second-ever NCAA women's hockey championship, the "Frozen Four."
Joining the Bears - who were the long-shot team at the tournament - were the defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, the ECAC East regular-season champion Niagara University Purple Eagles, and the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, who were the Western Collegiate Hockey Association champs and the nation's top-ranked team. "It's been a bit of a storybook season for us," said Murphy on the eve of Brown's national semifinal game against the Gophers. "We didn't think we'd be here. But suddenly we went on a tear and didn't look back. Our backs were up against the wall in the league championship, but we came back." Indeed, in the ECAC North championship game in Hanover the previous weekend, the Bears trailed Dartmouth, 3-1, in the second period before rallying to tie the game, 3-3, and send it into overtime. Nine minutes later, cocaptain Kim Insalaco '03 dove and tipped home the winning goal, deflecting the puck off the upper left goalpost.
Brown didn't need the same level of dramatics to knock off Minnesota in the national semifinals. Cocaptain Kristy Zamora '02 whipped home her team-leading thirty-third goal to break a scoreless tie one minute and forty seconds into the second period. Minnesota tied the game on a power-play goal seven minutes later, but Insalaco answered with a power-play goal of her own to put Brown ahead to stay. Minnesota came out blazing in the third period, outshooting the Bears, 17-5, but Alaska native Pam Dreyer '03 was, in Murphy's words, "a rock star" in the Brown goal, turning aside every Golden Gopher bid to preserve Brown's 2-1 win. Dreyer, the MVP of the ECAC North tournament, finished with thirty-five saves against Minnesota, much to the delight of her parents, Robert and Margo, and sister Amanda, who had flown in from Alaska to wave signs reading "You go, Eskimo" and "Alaska Loves Brown Bears."
Knocking out Minnesota was a sweet payback for Murphy and her team's juniors and seniors, who lost to the Golden Gophers, 4-2, in the 2000 national championship game. Now they had to get by Minnesota-Duluth, which downed Niagara, 3-2, in the other semifinal game. The Bulldogs were hoping for their second national title in just the team's third varsity season. Brown fans were noticeable among the 3,100 people at the Whittemore Center Arena late on a Sunday afternoon for the national championship game, which was nationally televised by CNN/SI. A couple of fans who knew of Murphy's head-shaving promise waved signs reading "Brown rocks, goodbye locks" and "Digit's 40 and almost bald."
The Bulldogs and Bears staged a battle worthy of a national championship game, replete with end-to-end action, golden scoring opportunities, and stunning saves by Dreyer and her UMD goaltending counterpart, Patricia Sautter. The teams were deadlocked at 2-2 through two periods, with the gifted Zamora scoring both Brown goals. (She was later named the tournament MVP.) But the Bears' storybook season was to finish one chapter short of a happy ending. With four minutes and fifty-six seconds left in regulation, UMD's Tricia Guest pounced on a loose puck in the Brown end, deftly used a defender as a screen, and whipped a low wrist shot past Dreyer for a 3-2 Bulldog lead. Brown pushed hard, but unsuccessfully, for the equalizer in the game's final minutes.
"I couldn't be more proud of these kids," Murphy told the media shortly afterward. "I told them in the locker room that I'll be telling stories forever about this team. There's a lot of memories."
Minnesota-Duluth will host next year's Frozen Four, and the Bears may have the guns for another go at the national title. Ivy Player of the Year and leading Brown scorer Zamora (thirty-five goals, twenty-one assists) graduates in May, but defender Insalaco (nineteen goals, twenty-one assists) and forward Courtney Johnson '03 (nine goals, twenty-seven assists) head up a strong crop of returnees. "I think the future's bright," said Murphy. "We've got three great freshmen [Jessica Link, Kerry Nugent, and Katie Guay, who combined for thirty-six goals and forty-six assists]; I've got a freshman who's an injury red-shirt in Amy McLaughlin ['06], and she's outstanding. I've got nine really top-quality recruits coming in. You've got Dreyer and Katie Germain ['04] coming back [in goal]. I see a lot of leadership coming back. They're going to take Brown hockey to the next level. I'm certainly going to push them there."
Scott Cole is a writer in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.