By Derek Dunning, Assistant Sports Information Director
NORTHFIELD, Vt. – Last March the Norwich women's ice hockey team answered the prevailing question of "is this the year?" with a resounding 5-2 statement win at top-ranked Rochester Institute of Technology in the NCAA D-III National Championship game.
After making the title game in only its third year as a varsity program in 2010, the Cadets came full circle in 2011. NU sent off the remaining six members of the inaugural recruiting class on top of the D-III world, as national champions.
"We certainly had the motivation with the returning players we had to get back to the Frozen Four," said Norwich head coach Mark Bolding as he enters his fifth season behind the bench. "We brought in 13 new kids to change our depth and that was one of the biggest keys to our success. It was a little rough early having so many new faces in the starting lineup, but by the second half of the year we really started rolling."
Norwich will enter the 2011-12 season with a few holes to fill, headlined by the loss of the program's all-time point leader and three-year team captain, Sophie Leclerc. She led the nation in points with 26 goals and 28 assists for 54 points. She concluded her illustrious career in the Maroon & Gold with 72 goals and 91 assists for 163 points.
"Our biggest recruit was the fact that Sophie could come back last year and finish off her four years of eligibility," said Bolding, who is the two-time reigning AHCA National Coach of the Year. "She not only was our top scorer and the best player in the country, but she was a great leader as well for us and that's what we needed. It was great for her and the other seniors to be able to go out that way."
However, the Cadets do return 21 players from last year's national championship squad, including six of the seven top scorers. Bolding has the luxury of returning all three members of his most productive line during the second half of the season with seniors Julie Fortier and Melissa Rundlett, as well as sophomore Renee Lortie.
Fortier (Saint-Malachie, Quebec) heads the list of returners after ranking second in the nation to only Leclerc last season with 23 goals and 22 assists for 45 points. She currently sits at 62 goals and 58 assists for 120 points and enters 2011-12 just 43 points shy of Leclerc's program record.
Rundlett (Saco, Maine) will take over the captain's 'C' from Leclerc this season after establishing new career highs with 18 goals and 17 assists for 35 points. She also led the team with six game-winning tallies. Lortie (Cornwall, Ontario) was named the ECAC East Rookie of the Year after leading all conference freshmen in scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points.
"Julie [Fortier], Renee [Lortie], and Rundlett are comfortable with each other and finished last year as probably the top line in all of D-III so we're hoping they can continue," Bolding said.
The Cadets' second line though will be one of the keys heading into the season. Junior winger Jillayne DeBus (Howell, Mich.) returns after an outstanding first year with NU after transferring in from Elmira following her freshman season. DeBus tallied an even 16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points while playing alongside Leclerc and the departed Brittane Michaud.
"Jill can put up numbers consistently and we're confident we've got two quality freshmen forwards in Tyne and Kaycie that should be able to step up into top-six roles and give us two solid lines," Bolding said.
Also returning up front are senior Mollie Fitzpatrick (0-3-3), juniors Stephanie Invernizzi (5-6-11) and Jackie Perez (3-5-8), as well as sophomores Meghan Papagno (4-5-9), Elle Kadel (1-5-6) and Haley Gibson (4-7-11).
"At the end of the day we're looking for depth," Bolding said. "I think if the year can start how it finished last year with all four lines playing hard and playing the system, we'll be a good hockey team. Some people will put up more points than others but at least if we're playing like that the burden won't just fall on Julie or Rundlett if the freshmen play well and the upperclassmen step up and seize the opportunity."
Although Norwich had plenty of horses up front, arguably the greatest difference from its runner-up year to its championship year was the corps of six defensemen. Jim Plumer set the model at Amherst on what six strong defensemen can do in Division III women's hockey by winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
"To have the ability to play six defense all game and in almost any situation was a big difference from the year before," Bolding said. "They could rush the puck and be offensive one minute and then the next could put up really good defensive efforts in our own end."
Heading the list of returners are seniors Amanda Wilks (Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Sarianne Lynn (Wethersfield, Conn.), who were both 2011 ECAC East First Team selections. Lynn led all D-III defensemen with six goals and 23 assists for 29 points, while Wilks chipped in with two goals and 19 assists for 21 points.
NU also returns four sophomores in Brittany Sharman (Ayer's Cliff, Quebec), Kayla Lascelle (Cornwall, Ontario), Marie-Philip Guay (Longueuil, Quebec), and Kayla Parsons (Fairbanks, Alaska) who now have a full year under their belts after playing a vital part to the program turning the corner last year.
"Our defensive corps is excellent," Bolding said. "Amanda Wilks and Sarianne Lynn can both dominant a game offensively and then the four sophomore defensemen are so versatile and can do everything. They play a good defensive game and they help generate offense. We feel really good on the back end."
In goal, the Cadets will be without their big-game goaltender that they have leaned on for the past four seasons in Cindy Fortin.
"It's like losing your Tom Brady in the net," Bolding said. "She finished the way any goalie would want to finish though, on top. For a small goalie who many coaches and opponents didn't believe she was a great goalie, she did all we could ask from her. But, now it's time for someone else. We're looking for someone to jump in and assume the role."
Battling for the starting job will be sophomores Joanie Plamondon (Pont-Rouge, Quebec) and Kelly Fisk (Hannibal, N.Y.). Plamondon was 4-1-1 last year with a 0.99 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. Fisk was 3-1-0 with a 0.75 goals against average and a .909 save percentage.
"We've got confidence in the goaltenders we have in Jo Plamondon and Kelly Fisk. We'll wait to see which of those two steps up. Hopefully they'll share the burden, but a coach always look for someone to step up and be the 'go to' goalie which we're hoping one of them will do.
The Cadets will once again face a daunting out of conference schedule with six of their seven games coming against opponents ranked in the top 10 of the USCHO.com Preseason Poll.
"The seven non-conference games are very important and we're fortunate enough to have some great local rivals," Bolding said. "If you can take care of business in your non-conference games, it's certainly a motivator and helps you see where you're at. It also drives up the urgency of our team to not take a day off."
NU will once again face No. 4 Plattsburgh State twice in a home and home series along with home dates against No. 2 R.I.T., No. 3 Middlebury, No. 10 Elmira, and Bowdoin. The Cadets will also travel to No. 6 Amherst to round out the non-conference schedule.
"We couldn't ask for any better of a non-conference schedule with six ranked teams, and you'll see Bowdoin right there on the fringe," Bolding said. "They're an excellent up and coming team that should make some noise on the national level this year."
Norwich will be thrust right into the fire out of the opening gate as it hosts the 2nd annual East/West Hockey Classic again this year on Oct. 28 and 29 at Kreitzberg Arena. The Cadets, along with arch-rival Manhattanville will converge on Northfield, Vt. to face ECAC West powerhouses Elmira and R.I.T. in four pre-determined matchups.
The pressure will be on the Cadets this season as every team that has won the D-III title since the NCAA started sponsoring a national championship in 2002 has repeated at least once. Elmira won the first two titles, followed by three from Middlebury and then two from Plattsburgh State and Amherst.
"We've got the target on our back now, but we're looking forward to the challenge," Bolding said. "They've tasted how important it is to have everybody playing well and now we'll see how the girls respond being on top."
The Cadets' title defense starts on Friday night at 7 p.m. when Norwich will raise its 2011 National Championship banner to the rafters of Kreitzberg Arena before the start of its season opener against Elmira.
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