East Amherst’s Kelsey Welch remembers March 19, 2012.
She felt devastated and confused — as did so many other players, coaches and alumni in the Niagara women’s hockey universe — that day as the university announced it was eliminating the sport as part of a restructuring of its athletics program.
A year later, she is still disappointed the program folded, but she is also in a much better place. Actually, she’s in a way better place with Mercyhurst: The Nichols graduate, two former Niagara teammates (junior forward Kaleigh Chippy and senior forward Jenna Hendrikx) and two fellow Western New Yorkers (freshmen Emily Janiga of East Aurora and goalie Julia DiTondo of Kenmore) are only one win from playing for a national championship.
The Lakers (29-6-1), coached by Buffalo native and former Canisius College player/assistant coach Mike Sisti, play the late game tonight at 9 at the NCAA Women’s Frozen Four against Boston University (27-5-3) at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, Minn. Mercyhurst, the College Hockey America champion, has won eight straight games.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity,” said Welch, a senior forward who also helped the Buffalo Bisons girls hockey program win six state titles and make seven national tournament appearances. “It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience and I’m just very excited and blessed to be able to have this opportunity.”
The national semifinals open at 6 p.m. today, with defending champion and unbeaten Minnesota (39-0) facing Boston College (27-6-3). This game also has special meaning in Western New York as sophomore Emily Pfalzer of Getzville is a Second Team All-Hockey East defenseman for BC.
This game has plenty of meaning for the Golden Gophers, who bring an NCAA record 47-game winning streak into the contest. They are seeking their fifth national title and trying to become the first women’s Division I team to complete an unbeaten season. Tonight’s winners play for the national championship at 4 p.m. Sunday.
This shapes up to be a nostalgic weekend (or a frustrating one) for Niagara women’s hockey fans as the national final is guaranteed to feature ex-Purple Eagles. Besides Welch, Chippy and Hendrikx, former full-time Niagara assistant Allysen Weidner is a volunteer assistant with Mercyhurst. On the opposite bench, Allison Coomey, an assistant captain on Niagara’s 2002 Frozen Four team who served as an assistant on Monteagle Ridge (2004-08), and ex-Purple Eagles assistant Katie Lachapelle (2001-04) are assistant coaches with Boston U.
Everyone with ties to Niagara’s women’s hockey voiced displeasure when the school dropped the program after 14 seasons. Welch remembers the shock and disappointment well. She had transferred to Niagara after two seasons at Syracuse, and was looking forward to finishing her career before family and friends.
While that didn’t happen, the trade-off for the business major is she now has a chance to go out on top.
“As much as I was disappointed, I think it happened for a reason and that’s why I’m here now,” said Welch, who found a hockey home with the Lakers four days after Niagara made its announcement. “A lot of good things have come to me since going to Mercyhurst.”
She, along with Chippy (three goals, eight assists, 11 points) and Hendrikx (7-11-18), offered the talented Lakers something they didn’t have in abundance entering 2012-13 — seasoning. Mercyhurst has added 19 players the past two seasons and only had three seniors slated to return.
“They brought some leadership and maturity,” said Sisti, whose program has received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament nine years in a row. “It was great for them to come to a young team and help us in areas we needed.”
Welch, who earned an assist in the Lakers’ 4-3, first-round NCAA Tournament victory at national No. 2 Cornell, has been able to do a little bit of everything, Sisti said. The winger/center has contributed five goals and 15 points to a team that ranks third nationally in goals per game (4.22). She is a very good defensive player (plus-19) who receives regular work on the penalty kill. Mercyhurst ranks sixth in the country in goals-against average (1.69).
“We’re just happy to see her have the success she’s had, not just for herself but team wise,” Sisti said.
Janiga has played a vital role in Mercyhurst’s success too. She ranks second on the team in goals (19) and third in points (40). DiTondo has appeared in only two games.
Boston College is making its third straight Frozen Four appearance, with Pfalzer making her second in a row. Pfalzer and the Eagles may be underdogs but they’re not entering the clash versus Minnesota in awe.
“We know what it’s like on this stage,” Pfalzer said.
Pfalzer has big-game experience.
Boston College’s Freshman Scholar Athlete of the Year helped the United States Under-18 Women’s National Team win gold at the IIHF World Championships in 2011. She was also a member of the 2010 U.S. team that captured silver at worlds.
“I definitely think playing in big games, I’ve played in big games in the past, you feel comfortable on the ice. It definitely helps,” said Pfalzer, who has four goals and 17 points this season for the nation’s No. 2 offense (4.36 goals per game).
At points in her career, Pfalzer said she’s played with each of the Western New Yorkers at the Frozen Four. She admits it feels pretty special having four area girls competing for a national title in the same year.
“Even though we’re not on the same team, hockey has always been part of our lives,” she said. “We’re sharing a special moment together on a big stage. Playing college hockey has always been one of our dreams. Now we’re all playing for a national championship.”
“I think it shows how much Buffalo has developed as a hockey town for girls hockey,” Welch said. “To say you have four kids going to the Frozen Four is such an amazing thing to be able to say.”
And if BC should meet Mercyhurst for the title Sunday?
“We’re friends off the ice, but not on,” Pfalzer said.
Women’s Frozen Four
Where: At Ridder Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.
No. 4 Boston College (27-6-3) vs. No. 1 Minnesota (39-0), 6 p.m.
No. 8 Mercyhurst (29-6-1) vs. No. 3 Boston University (27-5-3), 9 p.m.
National final, 4 p.m.
Western New York participants
Player School Yr. Pos. Hometown
Kelsey Welch Mercyhurst Sr F East Amherst
Emily Janiga Mercyhurst Fr. F East Aurora
Julia DiTondo Mercyhurst Fr. G Kenmore
Emily Pfalzer Boston College So. D Getzville
Participants with ties to Niagara University
Kelsey Welch Mercyhurst Sr. F
Kaleigh Chippy Mercyhurst Jr. F
Jenna Hendrikx Mercyhurst Sr. F
Allysen Weidner Mercyhurst asst. coach (former NU asst.)
Allison Coomey Boston U. asst. coach (former NU asst./player)
Katie Lachapelle Boston U. asst. coach (former NU asst.)