Former Bulldog Norton back at Frozen Four, but this time as a Gopher
Orono's Lizi Norton is playing in her third-straight Frozen Four this week at Amsoil Arena in Duluth after helping host UMD reach back-to-back Frozen Fours in 2021 and 2022.
DULUTH — Minnesota is back at the NCAA Frozen Four this week for the first time since 2019, when it lost to Wisconsin in the national championship game in Hamden, Connecticut.
Seven Gophers still remain from that 2018-19 squad, including two of team’s three leading scorers that year in Grace Zumwinkle and Taylor Heise.
But as Minnesota coach Brad Frost noted Thursday following the team’s practice at Amsoil Arena, there is one Gophers player who not only has more-recent Frozen Four experience, but more than anyone else on his team.
That person is fifth-year senior defenseman Lizi Norton, a transfer out of the host Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. Norton came to the Gophers this season after playing four years at UMD and graduating with a degree in education studies.
Norton is also making her third-straight Frozen Four appearance having reached the national semifinals in Erie, Pennsylvania, with UMD in 2020-21 and the national championship game as a Bulldog a year ago in University Park, Pennsylvania.
Minnesota has taken up residence in the UMD men’s locker room at Amsoil Arena this week — Ohio State is in the UMD women’s locker room, while Wisconsin and Northeastern are in the visitors locker rooms — and Norton said the return to Amsoil Arena has brought up a range of emotions.
“It's a pretty magical experience, I would say,” Norton said. “It’s really surreal being in the men's locker room and be down where I experienced the last four years. It's weird, but it's a good feeling.”
This isn’t Norton’s first time back at Amsoil Arena as a Gopher. She was last there Jan. 27-28 for 3-1 and 4-3 victories over her former team, tallying an assist in the latter game. In five games against UMD this year, Norton had a goal and an assist.
Norton, who has two goals and 12 assists this year, entered the transfer portal last on May 1 of last year — the final day winter sports athletes were eligible to enter. Norton said she made the decision “pretty quick” as she wanted to be closer to her home in Orono, Minnesota.
She said transferring to the Bulldogs' biggest rival was “a little bit” tough at first, but nothing like playing against UMD.
“Playing the Bulldogs and being on the opposite bench was a weird experience and kind of a mental battle at times,” said Norton, who is working on a masters degree in special education this year before doing her student teaching. “But other than that, I think it's been all positive.”
Norton said her role on the Minnesota blue line is similar to what it was at Minnesota Duluth. She’s a steady defenseman who gets the puck out quick.
Frost, whose team was upset last season in an NCAA regional final at Ridder by Norton and the Bulldogs, said Norton has been a great addition to the Gophers’ defensive group.
“Not the loudest and most exuberant player that we have,” Frost said. “She’s just very steady, brings maturity to our group. As far as on the ice, she’s really steady. She’s a real good skater, plays well defensively. She’s almost calmed our group down back there a little bit because of her presence.”
Asked what it was like to be back at the Frozen Four on Thursday, Zumwinkle — who was a sophomore at Minnesota the last time her school made it this far — said it was special after “a but of a hiatus.”
Her teammate, Heise, who was a freshman in 2018-19, wanted to use a different word that “hiatus” to describe the absence.
“I would say disappointment,” said Heise, adding that it feels like her freshman year was light years ago. “After so many years of just working really hard — we've had great teams, but I think this year we're probably the most complete. We're really excited to like get out and show everyone that on the big stage.”