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What Might Have Been

03/25/2020, 5:45pm CDT
By Dan Bauer

The Class of 2020 and the Rise of Blugold’s Women’s Hockey

The ominous clouds were building in the distance.  College athletics were under a tornado warning.  The exact course and severity of the twister could not be predicted.  Winter sport athletes prayed it would miss them.  And then it struck, with blinding speed and overwhelming force, destroying everything in its path. 

It was the day college athletics stood still.

“Sick to my stomach, heartbroken, lost, angry, betrayed, shocked,” was how UW-Eau Claire senior Emily Bauer described it.  There was no shortage of adjectives to describe the grief.

In the days that followed, as the country was advised to suspend their lives, every college athlete had ample time to reflect on what might have been.  For NCAA D3 women’s college hockey the conference playoffs were complete and the road to the Frozen Four was an eight horse race and a single win away.  It was an especially difficult pill to swallow for the UW-Eau Claire Blugolds women’s hockey team, who after two near misses, were poised to make their first ever trip to the elusive Frozen Four. 

Rising from the Ashes

Rewind five years and the idea of this program winning a national championship was unthinkable.  Coming off a pair of 21 loss seasons and a fifteen year run of mediocrity (145-236-39) the Blugolds turned the program over to thirty-seven year old alumnus Erik Strand.  A graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School in Minnesota, his resume included 104 games as a Blugold and eight seasons as an assistant coach for the men’s team that included a National Championship in 2013.

In five short years, the two times WIAC Coach of the Year has compiled an 89-39-14 record and three straight NCAA tournament appearances.  Building a championship culture began the day he accepted the job and his drive to achieve it has been the catalyst to the dramatic rise of the program.  On a timeline not even he could have predicted, the Blugolds have become legitimate championship contenders.

“I believed I could help build the women’s program into a national contender,” Strand admitted, “but I was not anticipating it happening as quickly as it did.”

The Blugold’s ascension under Strand’s guidance recently earned him his first CCM/ACHA D3 Women’s Coach of the Year nomination.  One of his biggest rivals, Joe Cranston at River Falls, wasn’t at all surprised by his friend’s success.  “I think he is a great coach, and I have a great deal of respect for him,” said Cranston who has guided his Falcons to eleven straight NCAA appearances and just recently won his 400th game.  “He has definitely pushed me to be a better coach.  We often joke that when one of us wins, we better be ready to lose the next game because it has become a chess match that we both really enjoy.”  After nine consecutive NCAA and WIAC regular season titles by the Falcons, the Blugolds ended their decade of dominance this year with their first ever WIAC title.

While there are many pieces to constructing a successful program, it is clear that Strand has been the engineer.  After a modest 9-13-5 first year, his Blugold women have posted 18, 19, 21 & 22 win seasons and finished this year ranked number three in the country.  His passion, organization, teaching of the game and aggressive systems of play are his trademarks.  If you spend five minutes talking to him or watch one of his practices, all will be evident.  The “Blugold Way” is ingrained in his athletes from the first day they step on campus.  It is a culture predicated upon blue collar work ethic and unselfishly giving yourself to the program. “Leaving the program better than you found it and thinking about what we could do for UWEC women’s hockey rather than what UWEC women’s hockey could do for us,” is how Emily Bauer explained it.

Erin Connolly, now the winningest goalie in Blugold history, believes it starts with finding the right kind of players.  “I think Strand had to rely a lot at first on finding hardworking players that were willing to put their nose to the grindstone and play hard for everyone else in the room,” she explained.  “I believe he found that with our senior class, and every year afterwards, more and more hardworking players came in and we all developed our talent together.  We’re not a team of all-stars, and that is something that makes this program so special.  We know we can rely on everyone to do their job.”

The emphasis on effort and compete level is developed in every practice.  From start to finish it is a competition, the score is kept in every drill or small game, and in the end a consequence for the losers.  And while barrel rolls, reverse seal walk and build a mountain were disliked, there was one particular punishment they all loathed.  “So it actually started junior year when we played at Concordia Minnesota, some of their girls were flowing (their hair) down for warmups and we were talking about it in the lockeroom,” reminisced Emily.   “When Strand came in and overheard us talking about how gross that is, he thought it would be pretty funny to make us do it.  So sure enough the next week Wednesday’s punishment was flowing down all of Thursday’s practice. We absolutely hated it but he got a kick out of it.”

Senior captain Sami Meister is clear about the influence her coach has had on her, “Coach Strand is hands down the most focused, driven, and passionate coach/person that I have ever met.  His style of coaching comes straight from his heart. You can just tell that everything he does is for his love of the game and his love for the team. I loved playing for him because he is the only coach that I have ever had who cared about things that I did off of the ice.”

“He always was there to remind you of how good you are, even if you don’t believe it yourself and pushes everyone to their highest potential,” praised Senior Abby Roeser.  “He is always pushing us to practice the way we would play in a game. He’s not afraid to say something to you, but he always does it in a supportive way.”

Assistant Chris Lombardo joined the Blugold staff three years ago after the departure of Taylor Ward.  Lombo, as he is affectionately called, sees the same characteristics in Strand.  “The culture that he’s been able to establish in just a few years is amazing, said the New York native.  “One word that comes to mind when I talk about Coach Strand is passion.  The passion he has for the game and more importantly the passion he has for his players.  He truly cares about each and every one of them.”

The two coaches made an immediate connection and together have pushed the Blugolds to new heights. "Working with Erik has been so much fun,” said Lombardo who left his job as head coach at Mahopac High School in New York.  “He and I are almost always on the same page. Even though he oversees everything as the head coach, he lets me do my thing with the defense.  It’s nice to be an assistant coach when the head coach has that kind of confidence in his staff.”  

“Coach Lombardo has been an excellent fit for us,” offered Strand.  “[He] does an excellent job of adding ideas or suggesting solutions if we are struggling on a concept. His passion for the game and helping our program have success is hard to quantify.”

The Fab Five - Senior Class of 2020

There is a time-tested adage that you judge a new coach after they have had time to make their roster their own.  The graduating class of 2020 was Strand’s first batch of recruits.  Eleven players came into the program with unknown expectations and even some reservation.  None with the exception of goaltender Erin Connolly, the reigning Miss Hockey in Wisconsin, who had been contacted by a few other schools, were highly sought after.  As the competition for playing time increased and success of the team soared, so did the attrition rate.  Four years later, only five remained.

Perhaps the most unexpected of the original eleven was defenseman Sami Meister.  After unsuccessfully exploring colleges as a junior, she made the decision in her words, “to go to school and be a normal student.”  She chose Eau Claire mostly because two of her siblings and her mother were Blugold graduates.  She arrived on campus with no intentions of playing.  Meister recalled her apprehension, “I didn’t really want to be a part of a team that lost more games than they had won.”

Then the phone call from Strand came that caused her to consider the possibility of playing.  “He told me that if I was interested I could join the team as they needed another defenseman,” said the Wayzata, Minnesota native.  “I thought about it and I decided, why not?  I could just try it out, make a couple of friends, and if I didn’t like it or it wasn’t fun, I could just quit and become a normal student.  I did not know what was coming, but I am sure glad I told him yes.”

Meister, a three time Honorable Mention WIAC defenseman, quickly established herself as a disciplined and dependable asset on the blue line.  Named captain as a senior, she has quarterbacked one of the team’s power plays since her sophomore season and has been a key component of the team’s nationally  4th ranked penalty kill.  Always preferring the pass over the shot, Meister finished her career with 12 goals and 37 assists.

Assistant coach Chris Lombardo has nothing but praise for Meister.  “Sami has been such a mainstay on the blue line and as a leader, she is so irreplaceable,” he offered. “I will miss being able to call out her number.” 

“Sami is the epic example of the nature and spirit of a hockey player,” praised Strand.  “She is one of the kindest people you will ever meet. She has a true compassion for people and a heart of gold.  On the ice however, a switch flips and she transformed into the ultimate warrior, smart, competitive and rarely ever on the losing side of a battle.”

As their highly successful career with the Central Wisconsin Storm was ending, there were no college coaches calling for twins Elizabeth and Emily Bauer.  It was only after sending out inquiries to coaches did they garner some interest.  It was Strand who came out to watch them play in Eau Claire and immediately told them he wanted them to become Blugolds.  His pitch was strong, but the decision for both to become Blugolds remained in limbo with Emily decidedly choosing Eau Claire, while her sister leaned toward Stevens Point.  After months of debating it was the persistence and enthusiasm of Strand that tipped the scale.  One of Strand’s tenets is based on finding players with high hockey IQ’s.  When it came to the Bauer twins, Strand struck cerebral gold.  He describes it as, “players being able to play within our system, but also know when to be hockey players and play outside of it.” 

“I do not say this lightly, Elizabeth (Biz) may be the smartest hockey player I have ever coached,” said Strand offering to include his days on the men’s side.  “I think she sees the ice and what plays are available at one of the highest levels I have seen.” 

Elizabeth jumped on the Blugold freeway and quickly ascended the team’s depth chart.  She would go on to achieve Honorable Mention and two First Team WIAC honors while setting the school record for single season assists (26) and career (66).  Amassing 103 points, the two year captain, finished second all-time on the Blugolds career scoring list.  Her success even surprised her head coach.  Bauer recalls her exit meeting after her junior year when Strand told her, “I thought you were going to be good, I didn’t think you were going to be this good.”  The admiration was mutual as Elizabeth, the eldest Bauer twin by a mere minute, credits Strand with transforming the program simply stating, “I think the key was Coach Strand.” 

For Emily it was a completely different story.  After a productive freshman year, five goals and four assists, she struggled through numerous healthy scratches as a sophomore and finished with just two points.  Following a very successful high school career, including leading the state of Wisconsin in assists as a senior, not playing while her sister flourished was beyond frustrating.  It is a situation many young college athletes are ill-prepared to handle.   As a junior and senior she found her place and played in every game compiling twenty-nine points and plus/minus of +36.  Her perseverance had paid off and despite the rough stretches she endured, she holds the utmost respect for her head coach.

“He is so invested in each team he coaches,” remarked the Wausau East graduate, “He always wanted us to leave everything out there each night so we had nothing to regret. He had high expectations for us, each year the bar went up a little higher and he always held us to the highest standards because he believed we were good enough together, to achieve any goal we wanted.”

Emily’s struggles didn’t go unnoticed by her head coach, “No doubt her sophomore year wasn’t easy to go through, but not only did she battle through it, she grew in a way that elevated her play and she earned an extremely important role for us her junior and senior year,” praised Strand.  “Emily’s passion and compete as a player are off the charts,” he continued.  “So many of the little plays she is so good at making aren’t the ones that show up on the stat sheet; she is smart and so good with her passes.  I’ll always be impressed with her work ethic.”

For Erin Connolly it was love at first sight when it came to the Eau Claire program.  The Homestead High School graduate was impressed by Strand’s persistence and drive to build a winning program.  Recalling her choice to become a Blugold, Connolly reflected, “What cemented my decision was largely Strand’s coaching philosophy and approach. He made it clear we were going to be a blue-collar, hardworking team, finding success through accountability and buy-in to the program. That was something I was looking for in a team.”

Connolly immediately and seamlessly transitioned from her decorated high school career, two time First Team All-State and Miss Hockey her senior year, into the backbone of a team that would establish itself as a suffocating defensive machine.  The DNA of the Blugolds swarming philosophy evolved from Strand’s time as an assistant with the men’s team.  “I came to realize how important time and space is because of all the battles I coached in and prepared for against St. Norbert College (Five National Championships),” Strand acknowledged.  “They have always been one of the best at limiting time and space.  Worst case scenario if we don't have success, we'll be able to say we went down swinging and I'm 100% ok with that.” 

With Connolly in net, the Blugolds finished this season with a 1.00 goals against average per game: the 4th best in the nation.  Connolly would go on to play 102 of the 115 games over her four years and set virtually every Blugold goaltending record, including GAA (1.38), Save percentage (.930), shutouts (22) & wins (70).   All four years she was named to the WIAC First Team and as a senior was honored with the Judy Kruckman Scholar-Athlete Award.  Just recently Erin was nominated for the Laura Hurd Award, given annually to the best NCAA Division III women's ice hockey player in the country.  As a three-time AHCA All-Academic selection she has maintained a 3.86 GPA.

In Connolly, Strand had found the perfect backstop to his “firewagon” defensive system.  “Her focus, her dedication to her craft, her compete level and her passion for hockey is phenomenal,” remarked Strand.  “She has this innate ability to keep her teammates confident and calm.  They all knew she had their back and they could play as hard as they wanted and make as many mistakes as they wanted because in our end of the rink they knew Erin was there waiting to help.”   

Much like her classmate Sami Meister, Abby Roeser came to Eau Claire not expecting to play hockey.  From Cottage Grove, Minnesota she was aware of the Blugolds track record, “I knew the team wasn’t very good.” After reaching out to coach Strand she decided to play.  “I was just happy to keep playing hockey.”

She struggled through a freshman year that saw her play in just eleven games.  As a sophomore she made the line-up, but still wasn’t getting much playing time.  Strand remembers that tough start, “She battled some adversity her freshman and sophomore years, but it only made her more determined.” 

Emily remembers those early seasons when she and Abby watched from above.  “Looking back, it was hard to not play, but Abby and I made the best of the situation and had some fun.  We always felt like we were still part of the team.  For a lot of players it is just part of the transition from high school.”

Abby’s perseverance paid off and she became an important piece of the Blugold puzzle.  It was all a part of Strand’s master plan.  Through his playing and coaching, he learned the value of a deep roster that can wear other teams down.  He seldom varies from his four line rotation.   “We’re built with the idea of creating multiple lines that may not be very flashy,” said the head coach, “but they compete hard, they are smart and all of them have the ability to be on the scoresheet on any given night.”  As the number three ranked team in the country, you won’t find any Blugolds in the nation’s top scorers.  In fact you will have to scroll down to number eighty-five to find the team’s top scorer Hanna Zavoral with twenty-five points.  Their “on any given night” balance is exactly how the Blugolds win.  Roeser was one of eight players to score eight or more goals this season, and the top goal scorer, Elizabeth Bauer, had only eleven.

An East Ridge High School grad, Roeser made her name with a unique blend of speed and toughness.  “Statistically Abby may not jump off the page, but she was an extremely pivotal player for us,” related Strand.  “She has exceptional speed and was the best net front forward in our league taking away the other team’s goalie’s eyes.”  Named as a captain her senior year, she served as a role model for a large class of incoming freshmen.  “She was a tremendous example of what our compete level and daily battle looks like,” said Strand.  

Recruiting high school athletes is at best a gamble in identifying character at a very unpredictable age.  How players will handle the challenges of managing their academics and time and how they adjust to living away from home are often difficult to accurately assess.  This inaugural class was no different, but Strand saw something in each that fit his evolving culture. 

“I had ideas about what the potential was for each of these players,” he recalled, “but I knew that at the very worst, if they didn’t reach their potential, that they were going to be excellent examples of what dedication and determination looks like.”        

As the seniors move on to make room for the incoming “Nugolds” next fall, as Strand calls them, his Class of 2020 has become the player blueprint for all the classes to follow.  ”I think every one of our seniors have a lot of similar characteristics that are needed for a program to have success,” he said.  “They are all good people off the ice, hard working in the classroom, very competitive, committed, have a high hockey IQ’s and are very passionate about the game.”

NCAA Horror Show

While the list of Blugold accomplishments and broken records over the past three seasons is extensive, it is what might have been, that likely keeps them awake at night.  It began back in 2018 when Eau Claire earned its first ever bid to the national tournament.  They went on a nine game unbeaten streak, capped by their first O’Brien Cup tournament championship, a 3-2 double overtime victory at River Falls, to finish the season.  They were rewarded with the first ever NCAA D3 women’s play-in game on the road at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.  When Emma Peterson scored just over a minute into the third overtime, another milestone had been achieved: their first NCAA Tournament victory.  Connolly was brilliant in goal stopping sixty shots for the Blugolds.

The NCAA, short on foresight, sent Eau Claire back on the ice less than twenty-fours later to face the well-rested Hamline Pipers, who had no play-in game.  The physically and emotionally drained Blugolds came out flat and fell behind, 3-0.  Out shooting Hamline 20-11 over the final two periods, they closed to within a goal, but fell short of an NCCA Frozen Four trip, 3-2.

Realizing their lack of judgement, the NCAA has now moved the play-in games to Wednesday, so teams have two days of rest between games.  For the Blugolds it was too little, too late.  Unfortunately nobody in Eau Claire realized then that the horror show was just beginning.

Eau Claire continued their surge up the college hockey polls in 2019 and earned their second NCAA appearance.  A 3-1 loss at Lake Forest in early January sparked the team to a 12-1 record the rest of the way and a second consecutive O’Brien Cup.  Drawing the top seeded St. Thomas Tommies in the quarterfinals in South St. Paul, Eau Claire took a 2-1 lead into the third period.  Emily Bauer scored a power play early in the third period to give the Blugolds a 3-1 lead and the Tommies appeared to be reeling.  Then it happened, after reporting the goal, the referees gathered at center ice and the nightmare was back on.  After over five minutes of deliberation and a conference with the local goal judge, the goal was nullified by a controversial ruling that the net had been moved prior to the goal.  It was the second chance wake-up call St. Thomas needed and they rallied for a 4-3 win.

Anger and frustration boiled over in the locker room with feelings that another Frozen Four trip had been unfairly taken away.  It was a bitter pill to swallow, but Strand took the high road following the game.   “The officials did not lose the game for us; we had plenty of time to finish and win the game,” he said following the loss.  “This is the hand that we are dealt, not sure why right now, but everything happens for a reason.  We will definitely rise from this stronger and more determined.”

The season would also bring a couple of major milestones.  Senior Courtney Wittig became the first DIII player to ever be selected in the NWHL draft.  The Green Bay native, who transferred from Marian College as a sophomore had had fueled the Eau Claire offense putting up 57 goals and 92 points in three seasons.  Wittig and teammate Holly Turnbull became just the second and third First Team NCAA All-Americans in Blugolds history following Kristin Faber in 2011.  The teams rocketing success was parlaying into individual recognition.  "You obviously hope for the best for your players and want their dreams to come true," Strand said.  "When you get a chance to see that actually happen and be a part of it, that's why you coach.”

As rewarding as the Blugold’s rapid ascent was, to Strand he knew the real work laid ahead.  Attending the ACHA Convention early in his coaching career he had heard Michigan State’s Rick Comley speak after the Spartan’s 2007 National Championship season.  Comley recalled how difficult it is to stay on top once you get there.  Strand explained, “Here is a coach that has won 738 games in his career sharing his experience about how hard it is to have continued success.  That talk struck me for some reason and even though we have yet to win a NCAA Championship, the success we have enjoyed gives players a false sense of security that all you need to do is show up and the winning just happens.  It is the furthest thing from the truth.  I have found that it takes A LOT of work to have success to begin with, but it takes even more hard work to maintain that level of success.”  He continued, “We focused a lot less on who we were playing and more on our work ethic and what we control and how we prepare and how we play.”

Unlike every other D3 women’s conference in the country, the WIAC is not eligible for an automatic bid, achieved by winning the conference tournament.  Instead they must qualify as one of three ‘at large’ berths.  It leaves little room for error during a long season.  There is no definite win and you are in game in March.  While other teams can rally from a slow start or rebound from a mid-season slump, teams in the WIAC have to maintain their “A” game all season long.

A huge challenge awaited the Blugolds as they opened the 2019-20 season and for the senior class of 2020 it meant they were down to their last strike.  It also meant saying goodbye to eight seniors including Wittig and  Turnbull.  But perhaps even more importantly it was welcoming in fourteen freshmen.  A return trip to the NCAA’s was anything but guaranteed as they took the ice in October.

The seniors embraced the challenge of making the freshman comfortable in their new environment and teaching them the Blugold way.  “First priority was getting the freshmen up to speed as quickly as possible,” Emily admitted.  “And not just with drills and systems though those were important, but buying into our culture.” 

Did they ever question their return to the NCAA Tournament?  “Going in, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of NCAA’s this year,” Roeser recalled. “We all just tried to take it day by day and focus on the games in front of us and not too far ahead.  Everyone really pulled together from the start.”

“I never had doubt about the team because I knew with Strand and Lombo, our success would be there,” reassured Meister.  Her faith was not misplaced as the team bolted to an 8-1-1 start.  Not only did the freshmen adapt, they excelled.  When the Blugolds defeated River Falls to win their first WIAC regular season championship, Strand demonstrated his mindfulness and made sure the parents of this group were included.  The team and parents gathered at “the arch” on campus to get a collective photo.  It was important to him to recognize the support parents have provided for their daughters and the program.

Strand explained, “Our parents are without a doubt our biggest supporters and fans.  I know they are there behind the scenes and are equally as emotionally invested in our season as the players and our staff are.  They are not the ones getting up early lifting weights or going through our practices, but they may be the first person that gets the call after something wonderful happens for their daughter.  They are definitely there helping pick up the pieces when their daughter may have a bad day on or off the ice.  So if we would have left the parents out of this historic moment, we would have left out a large part of the support system that helped make this dream a reality for all of us.”

The Blugolds broke their record for wins again and for the third straight season earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.  The stage was set and for the seniors, after coming up short the past two seasons, the motivation was high and the goal was clearly in sight.  For Erin Connolly the disappointment of the past two seasons hadn’t faded, “Those final games stuck with me throughout the summer and definitely helped motivate me in the gym and on the ice to go a little harder when I thought I couldn’t.  I didn’t want to leave anything to chance in our last season.” 

Elizabeth echoed the motivational factor, “I think going through those two tough loses when it felt like we lost because of things we couldn’t control, but we knew deep down that we needed to be better.”

The End of a Dream

On Monday, March 9th the Blugolds gathered in their lockeroom to confirm what they had expected; a third straight NCCA berth.  After a pair of tight loses to UW-River Falls to close the season, the possibility of being in the play-in game was real.  However, their strong regular season landed them in the quarterfinals awaiting the winner of the River Falls-Gustavus Adolphus match-up. 

As the week progressed, the concern over the spread of the Coronavirus had grown into a national crisis.  It was announced that the play-in game between Amherst & Norwich was not going to allow any fans.  Rumors began to spread as quickly as the virus itself and then word came that the quarterfinal game the Blugolds would host would be played with families only allowed.  Wednesday night River Falls disposed of GAC, 4-1, and a third straight weekend match-up against the Falcons was set.  Parents waited for word on how many tickets they would be allowed.  As the pandemic intensified and the NBA announced it was suspending its season, Saturday could not come fast enough.    

The Blugolds went to practice on Thursday—it would the last time they stepped on the ice together.

Sami Meister had just left practice at Hobbs Ice Arena and was at the WR Davies Student Center studying for an exam.  “At the exact moment I found out about the season ending, I had also found out about school being cancelled. The building erupted with students cheering because they didn’t have to go to school anymore. And yes, this meant that I didn’t have to take my exam, but this also meant that I would never get to play competitive hockey again,” she explained remorsefully.  “Like I had done all of these things, worked hard every day, and then just like that, it was all gone. It just ended, and I didn’t have a say in it at all.  I wanted to point my finger at someone and just scream, but, there was no one to blame. I felt empty.”

The announcement that afternoon that the NCAA was canceling, not postponing the season, crippled the eight teams waiting for their chance at a National Championship.  The tornado had struck and spewed not debris, but a malaise of heartbreak and disbelief.

 “I felt incredibly helpless,” said Connolly.

Head coach Erik Strand was in his office collecting the names of the six family members that each player requested for the quarterfinal ticket list.  Strand called the news and the job of addressing his team, “the toughest meeting I have ever had, ever.”   And for his seniors, it was a third NCAA tournament nightmare.  “It’s like a Hollywood movie and you’re thinking no way this keeps happening to the same main character, yet here we are again.”

Elizabeth Bauer, like every athlete, had been in that last game lockeroom many times before, but this was different.  “We are all used to having our seasons end with the heart-break of losing and not being good enough,” she lamented, “but the heart break we experienced, by not even having the chance, was way worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.”

Unprepared for what had just transpired and his team scattered around the campus, Strand scheduled a meeting for Friday.  Battling raw emotions is something all coaches learn to deal with during tough losses and the unexpected adversity that every season brings.  The temporary failure of losing a game is something you learn to deal with.  You learn to understand that injuries and bad bounces are part of the contract you signed when you decided to play.  When you play the game, you get a say in the outcome, you discover that sometimes your best won’t be good enough, and yet your best is all you can give.    

But this, like stopping a game after two periods, the unknown of a bracket that will never be filled out, was completely different.

“For the first time ever, I really struggled with what I was going to say to the team,” said an emotional Strand.  “The meeting itself was raw emotion. The last time I cried that much was probably when my mom had passed away.  The message to the team was one of appreciation for the work and dedication they all put in. I also asked that any time any of them started to focus on how our season ended, that instead they focus on what we had achieved.”  He reminded them, “Very few teams get a chance to have the season we just did and even though there was not a true finish, we still had a magical journey!”

In lockerooms across the nation coaches struggled to find the right words.  “It was really hard to see him so broken,” said Meister.  Emily Bauer also saw the pain, “He was emotional; it was hard for him to put into words how disappointed he was that it was over. He knew how unfair it was that we played our last game and had our last practice without even knowing it.”  

He told us, “He wished he could do anything to change the outcome,” Elizabeth added.

Not Looking Back

All the teams affected by the NCAA shutdown will be challenged over the rest of their lives to not look back at something they had no control over. That will, for most, be an exercise in futility.  The closer you get to your dream, the more difficult it is to see it end.  For the Blugold class of 2020, there will be days when they will still question their three near misses and wonder just how close they were to achieving their dream on March 12, 2020, they day their hockey careers came to an abrupt end.

“I will always have the what-if in my mind,” admitted Emily.  “What if we had a day between games, could we have beat Hamline?  What if they hadn’t called the goal off? We go up 3-1 in the third period - would we have let them come back?   Again we will never know the answer.”

Connolly agreed, “Of course, I get caught up in thinking about the what-ifs. Making it to the Frozen Four and battling for a national championship is something all of us had been dreaming about and working towards since our freshman year. It hurts knowing we won’t ever find out how far this group could’ve gone this year.”

The class of 2020 will go down as the winningest class in school history with eighty wins.  Based on the trajectory of the program it may not be a record they hold for long.  They will be remembered for being the catalyst of the program’s remarkable turnaround. 

Four years ago Erik Strand took a chance on five seniors, but also knows they did the same.  “I just want to thank them for taking a chance on me and for giving the program and me everything they had,” he said.  “Individually and collectively, they have demonstrated what sacrifice, hard work and putting the program first looks like by living this lifestyle every day.  I do not believe they have asked any Blugold to do anything more than what they themselves where willing to do themselves.” 

When they gather to reminisce with teammates, they will remember: that lockeroom when they learned of their first NCAA bid, Mariah Czech’s overtime game winner to secure their first O’Brien Cup, Elizabeth’s acrobatic overtime goal vs Adrian, Connolly’s stellar 60 saves and the goal that wasn’t at St. Thomas.  But it won’t be just the wins and losses that stay with them.  They will recall singing on the bus ride after a big win, the “terrible” Blugold idol skits, the team dinners, Strand’s  “Hell of a Day to be a Blugold”, morning practice, chili cookouts, and the great friends they made along with way.  They might even venture into the memory of the sophomore Superior meltdown.

Connolly reflected, “I think I’m going to miss the little things the most, though, cause they made up some great memories.”  For Abby Roeser, “I will remember the friendships and relationships that I built with my team, hands down.”

But in the end they will always come back to the question of what might have been. 

“It’s hard to not think about what could’ve been,” concluded Roeser. 

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI.  You can contact him at drbauer13@gmail.com

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