The college women's hockey campaign has shifted into post-season and the area's Division III programs are once again front and center in the quest for berths in the NCAA tournament.
Two-time defending national champion Plattsburgh State - ranked No. 1 nationally - hosts the ECAC West semifinals and finals this weekend and is expected to grab one of the eight NCAA invitations either as a conference champion or at-large selection.
Middlebury, ranked sixth nationally, completed an unbeaten run through New England Small College Athletic Conference play and hosts the NESCAC semifinals and finals this weekend. It's looking to wrap up the league's automatic NCAA bid beginning Saturday at Kenyon Arena.
Norwich won the New England Hockey Conference regular season title for the sixth consecutive year, earning the No. 7-ranked Cadets the right to host the NEHC final four beginning Friday at Kreitzberg Arena.
But there is a fourth local program that has shouldered its way into the post-season conversation - Castleton University. The Spartans are seeded second behind Norwich in the NEHC playoffs and face UMass-Boston in Friday's semifinals.
Castleton finds its footing
Castleton went 17-7-2 overall this season and 12-5-1 in conference play. The Spartans earned their first victories in history over Norwich and Middlebury, continuing the steady progress of a program that did not field its first varsity team until 2004-05.
Castleton went a cumulative 36-135-7 over its first eight seasons but began to find its footing when Bill Bowes was appointed head coach in 2011-12. He went 19-26-7 his first two years before guiding the Spartans to their first winning season with a 16-11-2 mark in 2013-14.
When Bowes left to become an assistant coach for the University of New Hampshire, Castleton turned to Steph Moberg, an assistant at Colby, a two-time All-American who won two national championships at Plattsburgh. She led the Spartans to a 14-12-2 record last season and has kept the program surging ahead this winter.
"There has been a lot of hard work put in and our last two recruiting classes have been really strong," Moberg said. "We have a good goalie and we have kids across the board who continue to surprise us. We may not have the same depth as a Plattsburgh State, but I think we're a tough team to play against."
As a conference rival, Norwich coach Mark Bolding has seen Castleton's improvement from a front row seat.
"They've continued to add hard-working talent - they are a very opportunistic and disciplined team," Bolding said. "They've had great goal tending with Jess Cameron and have a highly-skilled in-state player in Taylor Steadman. You won't beat that team unless you play a complete game."
Cameron, a senior from Prince Edward Island, Canada, is allowing fewer than two goals a game with a save percentage of .946 and was named NEHC goaltender of the year. Steadman, a Hartford native who began her career at Elmira, has 15 goals and six assists this season and had two scores in a 3-0 quarterfinal victory over Plymouth State that set a school record for season victories.
Forwards Rachel Bombardier (who Moberg calls one of the smartest players she's ever coached), Aimee Briand and Anna Daniels provide the Spartans' offensive depth.
"This is the first time Castleton has had a target on its back, ever," Moberg said. "Teams are showing up really pointing to beat us. But we area a passionate team that can skate and we play hard for 60 minutes."
It is said that Plattsburgh State never rebuilds, it simply reloads. And after winning four NCAA titles in the last nine years, that's tough to debate. After compiling a 311-43-22 record in 12 seasons, coach Kevin Houle has one of his most dominant teams.
The Cardinals are 24-1 this season with only a late-season loss at Utica marring a perfect record. They have outscored opponents 137-18 and are ranked No. 1 national in both goals-per-game (5.48) and goals allowed (0.72).
Plattsburgh hosts Oswego at Stafford Arena on Saturday while Utica takes on Elmira with the winners meeting for the conference crown Sunday. The Cardinals have not lost at home since Feb. 1, 2015.
"It has been a combined effort from top to bottom - we have four lines that can play with anyone," Houle said. "But the cornerstone is having great goal-tending."
Plattsburgh has that in spades with junior Camille Leonard, who is 22-1-0 with 12 shutouts this season. She was named ECAC West co-defensive player of the year and leads Division III with a 0.66 goals-against average and a .963 save percentage.
Sophomores Kayla Meneghin (Men-A-ghin) and Melissa Sheeran have spearheaded the attack. Meneghin is No. 2 nationally with 45 points and was named the conference player of the year. Sheeran ranks fourth with 43 points.
"They are very deep offensively and every bit as good as their numbers say they are," said Norwich coach Bolding, who lost twice to the Cardinals this season. "If you're going to beat Plattsburgh, you're going to have to play at your top level for 60 minutes."
Panthers on the prowl
No one has won more women's hockey games than Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo, who is 519-133-37 in 28 years with the Panthers. But the team that will face Trinity in the NESCAC semifinals Saturday is one of the youngest he has ever assembled.
Eight of Middlebury's top 10 scorers are either freshmen or sophomores. The team entered this season with virtually no experience in goal. The Panthers still rolled to an 18-4-3 record and extended their conference regular season unbeaten streak to 29 games.
"I've never had a team with this sort of break down by class," Mandigo said. "It has helped me with the patience word, and the kids have done a great job of getting better on a daily basis."
Middlebury lost All-American defender Carly Watson of Montpelier to injury after only six games. Senior Katie Mandigo has missed much of the year with a recurring shoulder separation. The Panthers shifted to a more defensive mode after the semester break and have jelled behind sophomore goalie Julia Neuberger.
Offensively, sophomore Maddie Winslow from Manchester has been the go-to scorer. She had two goals in Middlebury's quarterfinal 4-3 win over Colby and has 34 points on the season.
"Maddie is a hockey player in the truest sense of the word," Mandigo said. "She is smart and makes the people around her better."
The Panthers are riding a seven-game winning streak and will probably face Amherst, the No. 2 seed and ranked fourth nationally, if they reach the finals. The teams tied two regular season games and Mandigo doesn't believe Middlebury would draw an at-large NCAA bid if it doesn't win the NESCAC crown.
"We have some good losses but I don't think we have enough checks in our win column and the kids know that," he said. "Our seniors have never won the conference title and doing that would be a big deal for them."
Cadets look ahead
Norwich's lone NCAA championship came in 2011, although it has reached the finals twice since then. Earning the top seed and home ice for the conference tournament gives the Cadets an promising path to another shot at the title.
"Getting home ice was a big feather in our cap and we hope to use it," said coach Mark Bolding. "The girls are feeling confident about where they're at."
Norwich opened the year with losses to Plattsburgh and Elmira, an early-season wake-up call that helped a young roster (only three seniors) focus on fundamentals.
"We haven't scored as many goals as past seasons, but we've been consistent and have kind of scored by committee," Bolding said. "And in goal, Celeste Robert and Laurie King have not only played well, they've given us a chance to win every night."
Norwich was 20-6-0 overall and 17-1 in conference play, largely because of a defense that ranked fourth nationally, allowing 1.24 goals a game. Robert, a junior, has a 1.11 mark and backstopped NU's 1-0 quarterfinal victory over New England College.
On offense, Bryn Labbe was named conference rookie of the year and leads with team with 14 goals. Adelle Murphy has 20 points and Sarah Schweinzfeier, the team's most skilled player has 19. Senior Taylor Cross anchors the defense.
"We're a bunch of lunch pailers, a transition team that can capitalize," Bolding said. "But we're at that point in the season where every game is desperation."