Gabby Vukasin could see the end of her college hockey career approaching like a freight train and she wasn’t about to go out quietly.
With her Williams College women’s hockey team trailing Trinity 1-0 heading into the third period of the NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) quarterfinals in early March, the senior forward and former Princeton High star spoke up.
“We just weren’t playing our game,” said Vukasin, one of the squad’s co-captains. “Between the second and third period, I pulled the girls aside and said we had a chance to keep playing or end the season and it was up to us.”
Vukasin took matters into her hands assisting on the game-tying goal early in the third period, igniting a Williams’ rally which saw the Ephs pull out a 3-2 win. Williams went on to beat Connecticut College 2-0 in the semis and then top Bowdoin 4-1 in the championship game.
After the title game, Vukasin savored the moment as her career was extended into the NCAA Division III tourney by virtue of the win.
“We didn’t leave the ice for 45 minutes; we were taking pictures,” recalled Vukasin.
“We were more focused on being champions, because we had never done that before, than going to the NCAAs. Random people were coming up to me and saying great game.”
Days later, Vukasin did play her final college game as Williams fell 4-1 to Plattsburgh State in the opening round of the NCAAs. Vukasin scored a goal in the first minute of the contest but the Ephs couldn’t build on that.
“To be honest, I don’t remember that goal,” said Vukasin. “There was so much going on, it was a scramble in the crease and I don’t even remember hitting the puck.”
The finality of the loss left Vukasin with a sad memory. “That was pretty horrible,” said Vukasin. “I felt like we had such a great season and the chemistry was so great and I was never going to have that chance again.”
Earning a spot on the Ephs as a walk-on as a freshman, Vukasin made the most out of her chance to play college hockey. After getting four points in her debut campaign, the 5’6 Vukasin tallied 57 points on 32 goals and 25 assists over her last three years.
She rose through the ranks as a leader, being named one of the team’s co-captains this winter along with classmate Cristina Bravi.
“I wasn’t sure if I would be named captain; it felt good knowing that my teammates had confidence in my leadership abilities,” said Vukasin.
“I had a leadership role on the team as a junior being one of the older players. I had to learn to be a bad guy, holding them accountable.”
Coming off a disappointing 9-15-1 season in 2012-13, the Ephs were confident that they could be a force this winter.
“We definitely wanted to do much better than we had in the past,” said Vukasin. “We were definitely a little closer as a team than we had been in the past years, everyone was willing to work hard.”
Bringing a pedestrian 3-5 record into January, Williams got rolling with a sweep of Trinity to begin the 2014 portion of their schedule.
“We knew they were going to come out hard because they thought they were going to beat us,” said Vukasin.
“We knew we had the skills to beat them. I think some of the freshmen and sophomores really came into their own; having one year really helped them. Overall we had a lot of skill, we had three really strong lines and a lot of depth.”
Vukasin, for her part, showed her skill set, tallying 9 goals and 9 assists this winter and starring on the power play.
“I guess it was a function of my line; I was going in the corners more rather than playing in front of the net,” said Vukasin.
“I have been in the same power play position for three years and I was just using that experience.”
Playing the NESCAC final four at home and getting the title was an experience that Vukasin won’t soon forget.
“It was a lot of fun with friends and family there over the weekend,” said Vukasin.
“We had a rivalry with Bowdoin. In the past few years we had lost two or three close games to them that we thought we should have won. This year we swept them and some thought we were going to be a little cocky. It was pretty emotional for me; it was pretty awesome.”
With Williams having gone from 4-17 in 2010-11 to 15-10-3 this winter, Vukasin gives a lot of credit to head coach Megan Gillis, who took the helm three years ago.
“With Gillis, each year she is getting better and adding to her coaching repertoire,” added Vukasin. “The coaches are there all the time for us, players would go in for extra training.”
Gillis, for her part, appreciated Vukasin’s improvement over her career.
“We are updating school records this summer and I would be shocked if she is not in the top five in power play goals,” said Gillis.
“She was very good on special teams. She worked very hard on that. She was so tough in front of the net, she set a standard.”
In Gillis’ view, Vukasin also set a standard off the ice. “She is an extremely bright person, so intellectual,” said Gillis of Vukasin, an astrophysics and math major who has been accepted to graduate engineering programs.
“To excel in the classroom at a place like Williams speaks volumes and it gained the respect of her teammates.”
Having earned that respect gave Vukasin the latitude to call out her teammates when necessary.
“She showed up every day and worked hard,” said Gillis. “When you have a captain who leads by her actions like that, she can also hold others accountable by saying I am working this hard and you should too.”
Gillis believes that Vukasin is leaving a special legacy. “I am definitely going to miss Gabby and her leadership,” added Gillis.
“She and her co-captain showed up every day and worked and helped change the culture of the program. As a coach, you need players like that, they were the heart and soul of the team. To go from walk-on to a captain on a championship team, it doesn’t get much better than that.”
In the final analysis, Vukasin came to believe that she was competing for something bigger than herself as her college career unfolded.
“I played with more heart,” said Vukasin, who was named to the 2014 NESCAC Winter All-Sportsmanship team, which recognizes student-athletes from each varsity sport who have demonstrated outstanding dedication to sportsmanship.
“I was not playing for myself, I was playing for my teammates. I feel this season showed how much hard work and heart could make a difference.”