When Maddie Rooney stopped Canada’s Meghan Agosta in the final round of a shootout at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she didn’t just become an Olympic gold medalist.
Rooney became a star, appearing on “Ellen” and “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon in the victory tour that followed. The humble, but charismatic 20-year-old Team USA goalie quickly became a fan favorite and financial offers came her way.
But Rooney turned them down per NCAA rules governing amateurism as she was still a student-athlete with two seasons of eligibility remaining at Minnesota Duluth. It wasn’t until much later — once others began to bring it up — the idea of cashing in on Olympic fame ever popped up.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, I never thought of that,’” Rooney said. “It never crossed my mind. I always wanted to come back to college, get my degree and also we had unfinished business as Bulldogs, as we still do.”
Even after reaching the pinnacle of her sport by winning an Olympic gold medal — and making the winning save too — the 1-0 NCAA quarterfinal loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers on March 11, 2017 at Amsoil Arena continues to sting Rooney to this day, along with every other early playoff exit the Bulldogs have made over her college career.
For Rooney, an early exit is anything less than a national championship. That includes her freshman year when she watched from the bench as Wisconsin blanked the Bulldogs 5-0 in the WCHA Final Faceoff semifinals; the sophomore season loss to Minnesota in the NCAA tournament; and last season in her return to college as a junior, when UMD lost 4-1 to the Gophers in the Final Faceoff semis.
The Bulldogs are back in the Final Faceoff this weekend as the No. 4 seed taking on WCHA regular season champion Wisconsin at 2:07 p.m. Saturday in the first league semifinal at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis. The winner will face off against either No. 2 Minnesota or No. 3 Ohio State at 2:07 p.m. Sunday at Ridder.
UMD is indeed the underdog, sitting ninth nationally in the Pairwise rankings while the Badgers are second. However, two weeks ago in Duluth the Bulldogs were a minute away from beating Bucky — who is just 1-2-2 in its last five games — before giving up two extra-attacker goals and settling for a 5-5 tie.
With wins this season over the Gophers (in Minneapolis, even) and Buckeyes as well, Rooney doesn’t think the Bulldogs are as big of a longshot as some may think they are to win the WCHA Final Faceoff and capture the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
“Always ending my season shorter than we expected definitely fuels me,” Rooney said. “Especially being a senior, having this last go-around in the playoffs, I want to leave it all on the ice and leave this program with a good note.”
Rooney — UMD’s all-time leader in career saves (3,423), minutes (7,218:57) and games (121) — enters what she hopes to be the first of her final five games as a Bulldog with a .926 save percentage, 2.28 goals against average and 13 shutouts in 121 collegiate games over the past five years.
The postseason is where Rooney has proven to be at her best, though, going 7-4 with a .950 save percentage, 1.47 GAA and one shutout in 11 games.
Some of Rooney’s most memorable games have come in the postseason, including the 62 saves she made as a sophomore in a 2-1 double overtime win over the Gophers in the WCHA semifinals. Rooney finished with 112 saves on 117 shots that year in the Final Faceoff as UMD finished as the runner up to Wisconsin.
Then there was last Saturday — even though it was a loss — when Rooney stopped 59 of the 61 shots she saw in the four-overtime thriller against Bemidji State at Amsoil Arena. She came back the next night after playing 128-plus minutes and surrendered a single goal to help UMD clinch the series with a 4-1 win over the Beavers.
“It’s such a luxury to have her back there,” said fifth-year Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell. “She rises to the occasion more often that not. She loves the pressure, and I don’t want to say the lights, but the moment. She rises to it.”
Rooney said she hasn’t always handled the pressure very well, like last season coming back from the Olympics. She not only set a very high bar for herself having competed at the highest level in 2017-18, but admitted the outside expectations got to her head a little bit.
Rooney has rebound this season, returning to the top of the WCHA goaltending charts where she was as a sophomore pre-Olympics. She tied Minnesota senior Sydney Scobee with a league-best .930 save percentage and her 2.04 goals against average ranks fourth among WCHA goalies. Rooney landed on the All-WCHA second team — Scobee nabbed the first-team goalie spot — this year after being a third-teamer as a sophomore with a .942 save percentage and 1.65 GAA.
“I try not to put too much pressure on myself anymore,” Rooney said. “I feel like in the past I’ve dealt with that and crumbled underneath it. I’m just trying to enjoy the game as much as I can. The playoffs is such a fun time. You can steal games. I just love being able to give my team the best chance to win.”
Crowell said the statistics don’t tell the whole story of how much better Rooney has become as a goaltender. No longer is Rooney making behind-the-back desperation glove grabs or sprawling and diving saves. She’s in better position, moving quickly and efficient post-to-post, with simple flick of the leather to nab pucks.
“She’s always been cool, calm and collected … but I bet now she would be making different saves than she was making back then,” Crowell said comparing Rooney’s mindset from her sophomore to senior seasons. “She has more maturity in her game.”
Like Rooney, Crowell said she is confident in her team’s ability to make a deep postseason run beyond this weekend’s WCHA semifinals and final despite being in a win-or-go-home spot.
Reminiscent to the 2016-17 NCAA tournament team that had Lara Stalder, Ashleigh Brykaliuk, Katherine McGovern and future Olympic gold medalist defenseman Sidney Morin, UMD this year has a 50-plus-point scorer in sophomore Gabbie Hughes, a couple more snipers in senior co-captain Sydney Brodt (18 goals) and junior Anna Klein (13), plus the league’s top offensive defensemen in Ashton Bell (32 points, including 11 goals).
Oh, and like that 2016-17 team, UMD has Rooney.
“It’s a two-way street. When we score a goal, goalies just breathe a little easier, but we go as she goes,” Crowell said. “If she's making those routine saves and making them look easy and getting out, stopping pucks, making plays, flashing that glove when we need it, then the rest of the team feels more confident to maybe activate a D or take a little more opportunity in the offensive zone. I don't know if it's the chicken or the egg, but I think it's more the chicken in the net.”