Minnesota Duluth senior forward Ryleigh Houston has been the "new kid" twice now in her college career.
The first was in the fall of 2016 at North Dakota. Then the program was cut in the spring.
So Houston, who was supposed to be the Fighting Hawks' top returning scorer, transferred to the Bulldogs, not knowing how a former rival would be welcomed.
“It was pretty overwhelming for me. Coming off my first year and having to transfer like that, it was a pretty tough time,” Houston said. “It definitely felt like I was a freshman again.”
As Houston quickly learned, she had nothing to be nervous about. According to senior co-captain Sydney Brodt, the Bulldogs felt fortunate to get not only a phenomenal player in Houston, but from they heard a great person too.
Brodt said she put herself in Houston’s skates. She still remembers the day North Dakota cut its program. She was at Amsoil Arena with the rest of her teammates and panic set in, even though their program was safe.
“I just remember being super excited to have her on our team,” Brodt said of Houston’s arrival. “She was one of the top players on North Dakota and had an unbelievable freshman year. It was super cool to have her.
“The coaches describe her as an artist and I would definitely say I’ve learned a ton from her. I’ve really enjoyed being on a team with her.”
Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell, then in her third season at UMD and now in her fifth, said the addition of Houston was “massive” for the program and where it was at that season. UMD was in a rebuilding mode coming off an NCAA tournament run in 2016-17. In addition to having to replace graduated Olympic medalists Lara Stalder and Sidney Morin and captain Ashleigh Brykaliuk — now an assistant coach — starting goaltender Maddie Rooney was on loan to the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2017-18 for the Olympics.
Offensively, Houston has yet to match the 26 points she posted as a freshman when she recorded eight goals and 18 assists, though she was close a year ago with 20 points via nine goals and 11 assists.
Crowell said Houston — who, with three goals in the last four games, now has five goals and nine assists this year — has still made a significant impact thanks to her intelligence on the ice. That’s been especially true since Houston was moved from wing to center on Feb. 1 at Minnesota for a 2-0 victory.
“She's really smart. She's one of the smartest players on our team,” Crowell said. “She understands where to be and where threats are in the D zone. Talking to the staff, the way she comes up the ice with the puck in the middle has really opened things up.”
The Bulldogs begin postseason play Friday, hosting Bemidji State in Game 1 of a best-of-three WCHA quarterfinal series at Amsoil Arena. Puck drop is at 7:07 p.m. with Game 2 scheduled for 4:07 p.m. Saturday in Duluth. If necessary, Game 3 will be at 4:07 p.m. Sunday at Amsoil.
UMD is trying to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016-17. It’d be the second trip for seniors Maddie Rooney, Brooklyn Schugel, Jalyn Elmes and Brodt, but the first for Houston, who’s freshman season and career at North Dakota ended with a loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals.
Houston said she came to UMD for the same reason she originally chose North Dakota, and that was to compete for a national championship.
“Where am I going to go that pushes me to my limits and makes me the greatest player that I can be?” Houston said. “Coming from North Dakota, I saw that in them and I see that here, too. That was one of my main deciding factors why I came here.”
Houston will graduate from UMD in the spring with a degree in psychology. She’ll return to UMD next year to finish her second degree in exercise science while taking part in Hockey Canada’s Under-22 program and playing in Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association events.
Two memories have stood the test of time for Houston thus far as the best of her college career. One is scoring her first collegiate goal in the first period of her first collegiate game. Houston said that made her believe she could compete at this level.
The second was her first day as a Bulldog, and how welcoming everyone was to a former adversary.
“It was really refreshing to be welcomed so nicely because we were rivals beforehand,” Houston said. “I was a little bit nervous to come in here and they just welcomed me with open arms. I'll never forget that first day, the first couple of days, the first week even — just feeling part of the team, which was super important for me.”
Four Bulldogs land on All-WCHA teams
Ashton Bell, Gabbie Hughes, Maddie Rooney and Sydney Brodt earned All-WCHA honors Thursday as the three teams were announced.
Bell, the junior defenseman, was the lone Bulldog to land on the first-team. In her first season on the blue line at UMD after playing forward, Bell led all WCHA defensemen in scoring with 21 points via seven goals and 14 assists in 24 league games. Her 31 points in 32 games overall is the most by a UMD defenseman since 2007-08.
Rooney, a fifth-year senior goaltender, and Hughes, a sophomore forward, were both named to the second team. Brodt, the third-year captain and senior forward, was a third-team pick.
Rooney posted a .923 save percentage in league play that was second only to first-team goaltender Sydney Scobee, the Minnesota senior.
Hughes was fifth in league play in scoring with 37 points. Her 25 assists ranked third in WCHA play.
Brodt's 28 points were eighth in the WCHA during the regular season, while her team-leading 13 goals were sixth in the league.