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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Women's Hockey 2009-10 Season In Review

Possibilities and pain were a little greater

Maybe if they hadn’t slipped so many times in the first period of last Saturday’s Hockey East semifinal, the PC women would have an NCAA tournament game written up in this space today.

Or maybe if they had a few more minutes with which to completely delete the initial 3-0 deficit that ultimately morphed into a 3-2 loss.

Or maybe if they had started climbing out of their midseason hole just a little earlier. Or maybe if they had never fallen into that hole in the first place. Or maybe if they had a supra-.500 record against interleague rivals as opposed to the 4-5-4 transcript they ultimately settled for.

There are innumerable little culprits that factored into the Friars’ shortcoming in 2009-10, which sentimentally speaking is just the same as the program’s shortcomings in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. No room for error when the time came for the Hockey East pennant race, and eventually no pennant or bid to the Elite Eight.

But statistically speaking, this year’s fall was a little harder to come about and accordingly a little harder for head coach Bob Deraney and Co. to accept. This run was almost an unprompted remake of Slap Shot with rigid determination substituting the Hanson Brothers as the X-factor in a rather stirring turnaround.

“This year, there wasn’t a moment that I came to the rink that I couldn’t wait to get here,” Deraney said of the 2009-10 campaign and the group that produced it. “I knew they were going to inspire me with their play and not bore me.”

At one point, these Friars were apt as ever to distinguish themselves from their immediate predecessors, getting off to their first winning start since before the 2002-05 dynasty died. But then, a combination of injury-induced fatigue and mild conceit that rapidly soured into self-doubt turned a 3-1-1 start into a toe-curling 4-7-6 transcript at the halfway mark of the regular season.

Still, one only needed to examine the team’s list of individual games lost to injury and the quality of competition they had faced to predict some sort of resurgence. When PC finally deployed a maximum allotment of 18 skaters on November 14, it was in the midst of facing nationally ranked adversaries for seven consecutive games.

That train of pain climaxed in a little bit of gain. The Friars would commence Part II of their schedule –and a viability-salvaging 8-0-2 unbeaten tear- by bumping the almighty New Hampshire Wildcats, 4-1, in the treacherous depths of the Whittemore Center.

From there, long yearnings to envision a return to the glory days of a previous generation were gradually requited. In the second week of January, Providence garnered a slot in the national polls in its own right for the first time since January 2006. (Previously, the Friars enjoyed a preseason assignment to USA Today’s No. 9 slot at the start of last year, but promptly spilled that one and never recovered.)

And certainly, by the time they had confirmed their first regular season championship trophy since 2005, nobody was going to hesitate in giving these Friars a fair chance. They had kicked piles of ice chips over a shoddy start and every explanatory theory you could attach to it. At 15-10-9 overall, they were several strides above the .500 mark, whereas the previous three installments either finished right on the fence or just one game above.

And they had home ice with which to tip the scale on their national resume, which they had already padded by confronting 18 ranked opponents in 34 ventures, going 7-7-4 in that scenario.

“It’s their hard work and dedication that sets them apart this year out of the past few years,” said Deraney. “Not to sell them short, because some of those teams made it to the (Hockey East) final.

“I haven’t been around a group of young student-athletes like I have this group. Their morals, ethics, and values go back to older days that we always dreamed about. We talk about society nowadays and the youth of America and how they’re soft and this group gives you hope. I don’t mean to be philosophical, but you asked me what sets them apart.”

The coach and the databases answer that question well enough. But in wake of an arguably premature playoff exit, which once again terminated their season on the first weekend of March, some Friartownies are asking the more complicated, two-part question.

That question would be: why did it have to end when it did? And why did it have to end the way it did?

Incidentally, the likes of the Connecticut Huskies, semifinal victors at the Friars expense but losers to Boston University in last week’s title game, could ask the same question. Ditto Northeastern. Maybe if the NCAA had a Dandy Dozen for women’s hockey instead of an Elite Eight, at least two if not all three of those programs would be bracket shoo-ins and reflect the type of season Hockey East cohabitants gave one another.

“I’m proud and privileged to be a part of Women’s Hockey East,” said Deraney, who accepted his first Coach of the Year laurel the night before his season ended. “The eight coaches that we have and the eight programs that we have, we all make each other better, and this is going to make us better. As much as it hurts now, it’s going to pay dividends for us down the road.”

Still, four constituents from this particular run are making their tracks in two months. Regardless of what the returnees can reap starting next autumn, they will do so in the absence of Jackie Duncan, Colleen Martin, Pam McDevitt, and Arianna Rigano, who will make just the fourth graduating class in Deraney’s 11 years to depart the Divine Campus with no conference championship rings.

The coach concluded, in reference to his full 21-player roster, “I’d be proud to call every one of them my daughters with the way they go about their business not only on the ice, but in the classroom, the way they conduct themselves.

“That’s the difference. That’s why this one hurts –probably more than any of the others.”

Al Daniel can be reached at hockeyscribe@hotmail.com