March 18, 2020

PU Women’s Hockey Rues What Might Have Been As Coronavirus Situation Ends Shot at NCAA Title

LAST HURRAH: Princeton University women’s hockey player Carly Bullock, left, celebrates with Maggie Connors after a Tiger goal in the ECAC Hockey playoffs. Senior star Bullock helped Princeton win its first-ever ECACH title and earn an NCAA quarterfinal matchup at Northeastern. But Bullock and her teammates were denied a chance to go for another title as the NCAA championships were canceled due to ramifications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Princeton finished the winter with a 26-6-1 record, setting a program mark for most victories in a season.  (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When the Princeton University women’s hockey team got together for dinner at the Metro North last Thursday, it was not a typical night out.

Instead, it marked a last supper as the ECAC Hockey championship squad had convened after the NCAA tournament was canceled due to ramifications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

“We went for a team dinner because Princeton University was also being evacuated and we were losing the chance to have a banquet,” said Princeton head coach Cara Morey.

“It is hard because there is no real closure. We did the best we could to have something makeshift; it wasn’t a banquet but it was the best we could do for our seniors.”

When the cancellation became increasingly inevitable as the week went on, the Tigers struggled in their preparation for their NCAA quarterfinal contest at Northeastern which was slated for March 14 with the victor earning a spot in Frozen Four the next weekend at Boston University.

“It was the limbo that was maybe the hardest; for a day and a half, the uncertainty of whether we were going to play was one of the hardest parts,” said Morey.

“You are trying to prepare with the mentality that the game is on but in the back of your head, you think it could be canceled. The players are trying to practice just in case but they are also crying because it could be their last time together. It was really difficult.”

With Princeton having beaten Clarkson 5-1 in the ECACH semis on March 7 then rallying to defeat No. 1 Cornell 3-2 in overtime in the championship game a day later, the squad was primed for a run to the Frozen Four.

“I think we are still going to have strong teams but this just seemed like a really special group,” said Morey, whose team finished the winter with a 26-6-1 record, setting a program mark for most victories in a season. 

“The one thing that nobody wants to live with is the question of what if. You would almost rather try it and fail instead of wondering but it is something unprecedented, outside of our control.”

Dealing with the unprecedented situation was particularly tough for the team’s group of seniors that included Carly Bullock, Claire Thompson, Steph Neatby, Sylvie Wallin, and Mackenzie Ebel.

“It is devastating, especially for these seniors because they put on such a great performance and they have really brought the program so far in the last four years,” said Morey.

“They haven’t stopped crying. Carly Bullock has been crying for 34 hours now straight. We keep teasing her that she is going to be so dehydrated.”

Emotions were running high as those seniors got one final skate at Hobey Baker Rink last Thursday.

“We knew that it was going to be the last practice on Baker ice together because if we went to Boston and won then we would be staying there,” said Morey.

“We weren’t going to be coming back in between. We did know that it was going to be our last skate out there so it was pretty emotional.”

With sixth-ranked Princeton having gone 15-2-1 in its last 18 games on the way to its first-ever ECACH crown, Morey felt her squad had as good a chance to win the NCAA title as any of the other seven teams in the competition.

“Maybe we weren’t the best team on paper but they had really come together and were playing the best hockey of the year,” said Morey.

“There was something intangible; there was some sort of spirit around them. I was feeling like we could win this whole thing, it was just three hockey games.”

The team’s heroics in capturing the ECACH crown will give the Tiger players some solace.

“That is your silver lining,
I talked to the girls and told them that very, very few athletes get to win their last game of the season and very, very, very few get to win the last games of their career,” said Morey.

“So while it is extremely upsetting, they have that little piece to hang on to. They made history, we had never been there in the final and we won it. Right now, it is small because we were set on bigger things that we were looking at. It is something they will always have so that is pretty special.”

Reflecting on the season, Morey credited her senior group with making a big impact.

“I thanked them at our dinner for taking a chance on me and the program because it definitely wasn’t where it is now when they decided to come and they were some of the top recruits,” said Morey.

“I hope it ended paying off for them. They ended up making history and my vision of what the program could be came true, so it looks good now. They are tremendous, I don’t think they can be replaced ever. Everything they bring is not something you can replace the next year. They have also given us such a gift. They have really pushed that program to the next level so what they have given us will carry through for future teams.”

With such standouts as sophomore Sarah Filler, sophomore Maggie Connors, sophomore Mariah Keopple, junior Rachel McQuigge and junior Sharon Frankel slated to return, the future looks bright for the Tigers.

“We do have a good core group; it was the same last year where last year’s seniors were really crucial too and we still had a good foundation,” said Morey.

“It is not that every year at a school like Princeton where you can bring in and hand pick everybody but we have great players and we have a great culture now. It is what I am excited about.”

In the meantime, Morey will be keeping tabs on her returning players to make sure they stay in shape.   “I will figure out a way because the fitness aspect is one of the most important things,” said Morey.

“I am pretty tough on it. They buy into it and it is their priority also. I am going to have to be creative. Our trainer, Matt Fleekop, or I usually train them for five days a week in the spring. It is a hard spring season, we work them really hard. It is also a bonding time so it is going to be a void.”

And it will be hard to fill the void left by the premature end to the greatest season in program history.