Not many teams can lose the best player in the nation and still be ranked seventh to start the following season.
The Harvard women’s hockey team just happens to be one of them.
The Crimson may have graduated the legendary Julie Chu ’07, last season’s winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award for the best female collegiate hockey player, but the team still has plenty of weapons and will be looking, as always, to compete for the national title.
And while one Olympian may be gone, two still remain in senior tri-captain Caitlin Cahow and junior Sarah Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt led the team in goals last year with 30, and looks to better that total this season as the focus of the Crimson offense. She was a top-10 finalist for the Kazmaier Award and becomes the new face of the team following Chu’s departure.
While Vaillancourt leads Harvard’s offensive attack, Cahow is the stalwart of the Crimson defense. She was a unanimous first-team All-Ivy and All-ECAC selection last season and cannot hide her excitement about getting back onto the ice.
“We are really gelling as a unit,” Cahow says. “We have a great group of personalities and a great group of work ethics, and I think we are going to be very successful.”
Harvard goes into this season with a chip on its collective shoulder following its memorable quadruple-overtime loss in the NCAA Tournament to Wisconsin, the No. 1 ranked team in the country and eventual national champion.
According to Cahow, that devastating loss is far from forgotten, and has taught the Crimson a valuable lesson.
“It was definitely heartbreaking,” she says. “But at the same time it was also inspiring as to how well we can really play when we show up and we’re focused and we are determined to play our game.”
Head coach Katey Stone agrees, which is why she is stressing consistency this season.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about mental intensity and the ability to be resilient during adverse times,” Stone says. “One of the things that bothered me [about last year]—and we talked about it a lot during the offseason—was that we were in a position to win a lot of games and in the end we didn’t win them…I don’t believe it was a case of talent. I believe it was a case of mental toughness.”
Harvard will have plenty of games to test its mettle this season. The non-conference schedule includes matchups against top-10 teams Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Boston College—which the Crimson could also face in the final of the Beanpot Tournament in February.
The conference schedule includes home-and-home series with Dartmouth, a perennial power that graduated three Olympians, and St. Lawrence, which Stone describes as a “force to be reckoned with.”
Vaillancourt says, however, that the team is trying to stay focused on its immediate challenges.
“We are going to go one game at a time,” she says. “In the past few years we have thought too far ahead. ”
The team is hoping that an improved mentality will complement the high level of talent in the locker room.
“This is probably the best team we’ve had so far,” Vaillancourt says. “This year we are going to have a lot of players who can score and make the difference in a game.”
Cahow echoes her teammate’s sentiments.
“It’s not going to be about superstars,” she says. “It’s going to be about everyone working as a unit and individuals making extraordinary efforts on a game-to-game basis.”
Among those expected to step up is junior Jenny Brine, who showed scoring prowess last season, netting 23 goals. Junior Sarah Wilson, as well as rookies Liza Ryabkina and Katharine Chute, will be counted on to contribute offensively. Cahow, junior Katie Vaughn, and sophomore Cori Bassett headline the defensive corps.
Harvard will also have plenty of options at goaltender, with freshman Kylie Stephens joining the talented tandem of junior Brittany Martin and sophomore Christina Kessler.
“It’s been great for the team already,” Cahow says. “You go into practice every day, and it doesn’t matter which net you are shooting on, you are always going to say she’s one of the best goalies in the country.”
The Crimson has also received an infusion of new energy from its talented freshman class and sophomore transfer Anna McDonald. Stone notes that on top of providing depth, this new blood is blessed with a lot of speed on the ice.
McDonald joins Harvard from Boston College, where she amassed an impressive 33 points in her freshman year.
“She’s a tremendous hockey player, and I think she’s going to bring a lot to our team,” Vaillancourt predicts. “She’s going to bring a lot of speed, and I’m sure a lot of goals, too.”
There are also three new faces on the Crimson coaching staff. Joakim Flygh joins Harvard from Minnesota-Duluth, and he will work primarily with the defense and penalty-killing unit. Melanie Ruzzi, who spent the last two seasons as an assistant at Amherst, brings experience as a star player during her time at Providence. Sara DeCosta, a goaltender for the U.S. team in both the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, also joins the Crimson staff as a volunteer assistant.
And just in case the Harvard skaters need any more help, they can always call on a knowledgeable old friend.
“Julie Chu stays in touch with all of us,” Cahow says. “She gives us pointers and feedback whenever we ask, so she is very much still a part of Harvard hockey.”