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College women's hockey: Ups and downs mark UMD's season

Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell called her fourth season with the Bulldogs a roller coaster. The highs included a sweep of NCAA tournament participant Boston College to start the season; a key home sweep of Ohio State in January; and an over...

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.comMinnesota Duluth's Lizi Norton, Gabbie Hughes (center) and Anneke Linser celebrate a goal against Bemidji State during Saturday's game at Amsoil Arena. The Bulldogs swept the Beavers in the quarterfinal series to set up Saturday's WCHA Final Faceoff semifinal at Minnesota.
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com Minnesota Duluth's Lizi Norton, Gabbie Hughes (center) and Anneke Linser celebrate a goal against Bemidji State during a WCHA playoff game at Amsoil Arena.
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Minnesota Duluth coach Maura Crowell called her fourth season with the Bulldogs a roller coaster.

The highs included a sweep of NCAA tournament participant Boston College to start the season; a key home sweep of Ohio State in January; and an overtime victory over Frozen Four qualifier Minnesota at Ridder Arena in February.

Those victories were nullified by the lows, such as home losses to sub-.500 Quinnipiac and a St. Cloud State squad that lost 25 games. UMD tied three of five games against Minnesota State-Mankato, which finished the year 9-19-7.

"You got to beat the teams you're supposed to beat along the way and steal some from teams that you're not supposed to beat," Crowell said. "We weren't able to do that on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, it ended sooner than we would have liked to."

In a way, the 2018-19 season is a microcosm of Crowell's four seasons leading the Bulldogs. The program has made three appearances in the WCHA Final Faceoff, but reached the NCAA tournament just once in 2017 when the team also played for the WCHA postseason title.

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UMD has finished in the top half of the WCHA in three of Crowell's four seasons, but has also finished with losing records in league play and overall in three of four seasons.

Despite a second consecutive season of going 15-16-4 overall, Crowell is optimistic about the future after fielding a lineup of mostly freshmen for the second consecutive season. In 2017-18, the Bulldogs couldn't beat Boston College or Minnesota. Now they have.

A year ago, UMD's season ended in the WCHA quarterfinals, losing in three games to Bemidji State at Amsoil Arena. This year the season ended in the WCHA semifinals.

"If you are led by freshmen, you're going to go as they go," Crowell said. "They are learning in games every single day. We're going to get better and better as those players get older and older because they have that experience."

Crowell has three high school seniors signed for next season - Kassy Betinol or Okotoks, Alberta; Mannon McMahon of Maple Grove, Minn.; and Taylor Stewart of Rochester, Minn. - and she didn't shut the door on possibly adding more pieces should the opportunity present itself.

All three incoming freshmen have a chance to be impact players, Crowell said, especially McMahon after scoring 20-plus goals her last three years at Maple Grove. However, the Bulldogs coach expects much of her team's improvement to come from within next season.

UMD returns the entirety of its top three forward lines, as well as its top two defensive pairings and, most notably, starting goaltender and Olympic gold medalist Maddie Rooney.

Rooney, like many of the Olympians who returned to the college ranks this season, struggled at times this year finishing with a .919 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average. She posted a .942 save percentage and 1.65 GAA as a sophomore.

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Crowell said she expects a much better senior year from Rooney, who showed in the Olympics and in the WCHA playoffs this year that she rises to the occasion when the pressure is on.

"It's do-or-die, it's her senior year," Crowell said. "She has goals that she wants to accomplish as an individual and we have goals we want to accomplish as a team. Time to get it done."

Rooney won't be the only Bulldog under pressure to up her game in 2018-19, Crowell said. The same will be true for forward Gabbie Hughes after leading the Bulldogs in goals (19), assists (18) and points (37).

Those numbers all ranked among the top 10 overall in the WCHA - even beating Rooney's fellow gold medalist Kelly Pannek of Minnesota - and in the top 10 nationally for freshmen.

"The future is going to be great for her," Crowell said. "There's obviously pressure to repeat what she just did, but I think she is a gifted enough player and loves the game enough that it will come naturally. She shouldn't have to push for those numbers."

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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