Dream denied last year, OSU women's hockey team relishes chance for NCAA title

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State players celebrate one of their seven goals against Minnesota Duluth in a 7-2 victory over the Bulldogs in a semifinal of the WCHA Final Faceoff.

They were literally at the airport gate when their season and their dream ended last March.

The Ohio State women’s hockey team was fresh off its first Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference championship and was at the Columbus airport headed for the NCAA tournament in Minneapolis.

Then the call came. The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the tournament’s cancellation.

“That was definitely extremely devastating,” senior defenseman Lisa Bruno said.  

But it also provided immediate motivation for a 2020-21 season that required much sacrifice. The Buckeyes have lived essentially in a bubble since August in a mostly successful attempt to stave off COVID.

The Buckeyes rose to No. 2 in the national rankings before losing 3-2 in overtime to Wisconsin in the WCHA championship game last Sunday. That didn’t keep the Buckeyes (12-6) from getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in Erie, Pennsylvania. Third-seeded Ohio State will play No. 6 Boston College at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the quarterfinals.

Last year’s cancellation has never left the Buckeyes’ minds.

“We were ready,” coach Nadine Muzerall said. “We were firing on all cylinders."

Ohio State women's hockey coach Nadine Muzerall and her team put aside the abrupt finish to last season, when the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus.

Muzerall bemoans the fact that she couldn’t give those seniors a proper farewell.

“It was just a quick ‘Goodbye and good luck with your next endeavors,’ ” she said. “That was probably the hardest part, the emotional part. Everybody’s separated across the globe — Europe and Canada and the U.S.”

With her players dispersed, Muzerall and her staff emphasized keeping lines of communication open as they figured out a way to proceed. When the team reconvened late last summer, the players knew it couldn’t be business as usual.

“I can’t say enough about the buy-in on our team,” senior center Liz Schepers said. “We had a players-only meeting when we all got on campus in August, and we said, ‘OK, this is how it’s going to be if we want to make this happen. If we want to have a chance at what we were robbed of last year, then we have to buy in right now and not look back.’

“The girls have been amazing. Our coaches have trusted us and continued to give us opportunities to play and compete, and our medical staff has been amazing, too, with keeping everything in order.”

Ohio State senior forward Liz Schepers said the Buckeyes have had a total buy-in to succeeding this season after their 2020 NCAA tournament appearance was canceled because of COVID-19.

There have been bumps in the road. Muzerall’s original plan was to have the team stay in Columbus over Christmas. But when the Buckeyes had a COVID outbreak right after Thanksgiving and didn’t play a game from Nov. 28 until Jan. 1, Muzerall knew her players needed a break for their mental well-being. Muzerall has two young children, and she said her maternal instincts kicked in.

“They looked broken,” she said. “They looked tired. How do you put a price on giving mom a hug? Mom can give a hug, and it goes a lot farther at that moment than most things. Curling up on the couch with your dog … the things that you take for granted. They just needed to go home.”

For the international players, that meant quarantining when they returned. Bruno is Canadian, as are two others with whom she shares an apartment with three Americans. The Canadians were confined to their rooms until their quarantine period ended.

Senior defenseman Lisa Bruno was among the Canadian players on Ohio State who had to quarantine for two weeks after a much-needed Christmas break.

“That was definitely tough,” said Bruno, a native of Whitby, Ontario. “It’s hard not to be able to hang out with one another, but we know the circumstances we had to follow.”

The team reveled in their time on the ice. It was the one place when things felt normal.

“I truly have never played for a team or program that’s so close-knit and everybody gets along with everybody,” Bruno said. “It’s so nice going to the rink every day. Everyone’s always smiley and happy, always want to be around each other.”

It helps to have played so well. Ohio State won seven of eight games before the WCHA title game.

The Buckeyes have done it with balance and a collective chip on the shoulder. Nine players have at least nine points, led by Tatum Skaggs’ 17, on eight goals and nine assists. Goaltender Andrea Braendli has allowed only 1.99 goals per game. Yet not one player received first-team WCHA honors.

“Either we’re not as respected as we should be, or we’re just that team that’s consistently good, all of them (through the lineup),” Muzerall said.

Probably both. The team has taken its personality from its feisty coach. Many of their players were overlooked during recruiting and cast their lot with Muzerall as she took over a faltering program in 2016. For instance, Schepers, a Minnesotan, wasn’t recruited by the Golden Gophers, a perennial power.

“I think you can say that about every girl from Minnesota on our roster,” said Schepers, whose status is for the NCAAs is uncertain after she was injured in the WCHA championship game. “They tend to recruit those big, top names. If you’re not on that top list, they don’t look your way. We have a bunch of girls on our team that have taken that and said, ‘OK, we’ll go somewhere else, and we’ll beat you.’ ”

Muzerall laughs at the irony of that, because she was a Minnesota assistant before taking the Ohio State job. For the first time since 2007, the Gophers won’t be in the NCAA tournament.

The Buckeyes have qualified for the third time in four years. After not getting the chance last year, they want to take full advantage now.

They are high-achievers off the ice as well. She said her team’s cumulative grade point average is 3.78, with one-third of the team earning 4.0s.

“Everybody has left their footprint as they’ve come and gone through this program,” Muzerall said. “But this senior class, not to sound corny, they’re the real champions.

“They’ve made my job a lot easier because they bought in. They are soldiers. They’re resilient. They’re very, very special to me.”