For the UW-Eau Claire women’s hockey team, the 2015-16 season was one of exuberant highs and forlorn lows.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Erik Strand, the team showed promise as they finished the year 9-13-5. Just last season, they finished with a record of 5-21-1.
Last Friday and Saturday the Blugolds battled the UW-River Falls Falcons in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) tournament in River Falls. It was the fifth and sixth time the two teams met this season.
The Blugolds fell to the No. 1 seed Falcons 4-1 in a match that contained a flurry of goals in the first period by both Eau Claire and River Falls. After going down 2-0, sophomore Kelsey Rafferty got the Blugolds on the scoreboard as she skated past the Falcons’ defense to score a goal with 18:32 to go in the first period.
As the game went on, the Blugolds did not make the efforts they needed in order to win, Strand said.
“They were hungrier than us on Friday,” Strand said. “We didn’t match their efforts.”
Eau Claire wasn’t able to hold on and ended up giving away two more goals, which included a power play goal before the end of the third period to put the game out of reach.
Saturday afternoon allowed the Blugolds another opportunity to advance to the next round. If Eau Claire won the second game of the series, it would enable them to face River Falls in a mini-game that would decide who moved on.
“I was very confident in our abilities to win Saturday’s game,” Strand said. “We had proved we are capable of playing with them and being in the position to win.”
River Falls tried to put the game away early as they were first to score only 1:17 into the first period. Eau Claire was quick to answer River Falls’ initial goal as they scored two goals in the first period to make the score 2-1.
The Blugolds added to their lead as senior Ashley Baugher scored 16:54 into the second period. This gave Eau Claire a promising 3-1 lead heading into the third period.
The third period was when the Falcons took over. Dani Sibley scored two of her three goals in the last minutes for the Falcons to tie the score and earn the hat trick.
“We have to credit River Falls,” Strand said. “They are a historic program with a rich tradition for hockey. It’s tough because we held their top scorers in check all weekend, but Dani Sibley brought her A game and made the most of the opportunities given.”
Saturday’s game ended the season for the Blugolds, but the graduating seniors left the ice with a head coach who was proud of their accomplishments and strides they made over the year.
“I’m happy for our seniors. I know they really wanted to beat River Falls,” Strand said. “Being a former player, I would much rather have my season end with a tie instead of a loss. I hope the Blugolds are as proud as I am because we did everything we should do in order to win a playoff game on the road.”
For rookie head coach Erik Strand, this was the first year he was able to instill a new system within the women’s hockey program.
Strand said he was blown away by the way his team grasped the new system this year.
“Installing a new system with players who have grown accustomed to one can be difficult,” he said. “But this entire group did a great job in understanding, applying and continuing to improve the entire year.”
Although the Blugolds lost 13 games over the season, 10 of the losses were only by one goal.
“Losing 10 of our 13 games by only one goal is remarkable in a sense of knowing what our team can do,” Strand said. “It is encouraging for next year.”
The Blugolds were back at it again come Monday morning, Strand said. There were already players back at work as they were on the ice getting workouts in just two days after the last game of the season finale.
“I’m extremely excited for the future of this group,” Strand said. “With the experience we already have plus our recruits coming in next year, this is only the beginning for Blugold hockey.”