Senior group key to Ohio State’s turnaround in women’s hockey

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State women's hockey coach Nadine Muzerall took over the program before the 2016-17 season. [File photo]

A week before they arrived on campus as freshmen, their coach was fired.

The journey of the four seniors on the Ohio State women’s hockey team began with a sub-.500 season, followed by a run to the Frozen Four the next year. Now, they are No. 5 in the national rankings and hope to make another long postseason run.

But first there is Senior Day this weekend, and it promises to be emotional. It certainly will be for their coach, Nadine Muzerall, who was hired shortly before the 2016-17 season.

The bond between Muzerall and her seniors — co-captains Jincy Dunne and Olivia Soares along with Rebecca Freiburger and Elise Riemenschneider — is strong.

“This is a special class because it’s the class that came in with me,” Muzerall said. “To watch the evolution and the transition of our success really stemmed from them and their commitment to stay, their commitment to grow the program, their commitment for change. I changed a lot of things, and rightfully so, but people could have resisted that. They didn’t.”

Though Friday’s and Saturday’s games against St. Cloud State will be the regular-season finale at the OSU Ice Rink, they will not be the final home games of the season. The Buckeyes will play host to the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs next weekend.

Ohio State (18-8-6, 11-6-5) believes it is poised for a deep championship run. It features high-end scoring talent led by Emma Maltais, Liz Schepers and Tatum Skaggs. Their other lines provide secondary scoring and grit. Dunne leads a strong defensive core, and goaltender Andrea Braendli has a save percentage of .918.

Last week, the Buckeyes beat No. 2 Wisconsin in Madison 3-1 before tying the Badgers and losing in a shootout in the second game.

Earlier this season, Ohio State beat Minnesota when the Golden Gophers were No. 1 and Cornell when the Big Red was No. 3

“We’ve played the toughest schedule in the country,” Freiburger said. “We’ve played with the best, we’ve beaten the best, we’ve lost to the best, but learned from it. So going forward, I have pretty high expectations.”

It’s a long way from the uncertainty that marked the start of the seniors’ time at Ohio State.

“We’ve kind of set the standard of what we need to be a top-tier team, what we need to be high in the rankings,” Soares said. “Over the years, we’ve had to change our culture and change our values as a program and realize what we want to do. We might have to sacrifice things for that, but everyone’s bought in to the process.”

Muzerall is a demanding coach, but her players wouldn’t want it any other way.

“You want someone who has a standard for you and pushes you to be the best you can be,” Soares said. “Every day she does that. She doesn’t settle for anything less. We like that pressure. Pressure is a privilege.”

The pressure will ramp up soon.