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In Defense of BC Women’s Hockey

Yeah, it’s been a struggle. But who can blame them?

John Quackenbos, BC Athletics

Last night, Boston College Women’s Hockey fell to New Hampshire 3-0 in their second straight shutout loss, falling into a true battle for home ice in... not the NCAA tournament, but the Hockey East tournament, of all things. The Eagles sit in third place in the league standings, but thanks to some teams having a couple games in hand, BC should probably consider themselves right on the bubble to host their quarterfinal.

A bid into the NCAA tournament via an at-large berth at 7th place has been outside the realm of possibility for a few weeks now. With BC sitting in 14th in the Pairwise with the weekend’s slate of games just about wrapped up, the Eagles have long since had to lower their sights to the Hockey East tournament — depressing for a program that has made the national tournament for nine straight seasons.

So now, of course, people with little interest in the program when they are winning are happy to come out of the woodwork to trash the program now that they’re struggling. Most of the ire is pointed at the coaching staff — the same coaching staff that built the program in the first place, starting from absolutely nothing and reaching the point where not making the Frozen Four is a disappointment.

If you are here with that opinion, I am here to tell you that your ire is misguided.

Last year, the Eagles fell in overtime in the conference championship game to the #3 team in the country and lost on the road to the #4 team in the country in the national tournament, and everyone made sure to be Very Concerned about their “collapse.” Sure, the Eagles didn’t have as good a year as they’d hoped to, but winning trophies is hard — and Boston College was still a top five team!

BC is just two years removed from back-to-back Hockey East titles and from making the Frozen Four in 6 out of 7 years, so the disappointment is understandable. But, for God’s sake, BC is just two years removed from back-to-back Hockey East titles and from making the Frozen Four in 6 out of 7 years! Minnesota missed the tournament in 2007. Wisconsin — the reigning national champion — missed the tournament in 2013. And these are the elite of the elite that you would never expect to fall out of the picture.

Sometimes you just need a rebuild. And, wow, was BC going to need to rebuild after this past off-season.

Even before the well-publicized transfers of Daryl Watts and Caitrin Lonergan in the summer, the Eagles were going to lose 4/6ths of their blue line to graduation, including some of the best players to ever play at BC. Megan Keller has a case to be the best defender the Heights has ever seen, and Kali Flanagan joined her in winning an Olympic gold medal in PyeongChang. Beyond those two, Grace Bizal was a point-per-game player before going down with a career-ending injury, and Serena Sommerfield was a legitimate workhorse and one of the players you were truly proud of wearing your school’s colors. All four played major, major minutes, and all four took with them four years of experience. On the blue line, that’s as important as anything — particularly for a program that generates more offense from their defenders than any team in the country.

Rarely does a team need to completely rebuild an entire unit. It would be impossible to lose four players out of six and not take a step back. And that was just the defense! BC lost three forwards to graduation as well. One of those forwards, in addition to being one of the best two-way players in the league, was also the 5th highest scorer in the history of the program. Makenna Newkirk put up 189 career points in her four years and was a leader on and off the ice. She went off to the real world last year, too.

Yes, every team has to deal with graduation losses. And even with BC taking an exceptionally large hit from losing the senior class, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect BC to still be kicking in the NCAA tournament discussion with a next-woman-up, one-class rebuild. But as everyone knows, this wasn’t just just a graduating class that BC lost.

We’ve now reached the point where we need to talk about the Badger- and Knight- sized elephants in the room: Caitrin Lonergan and Daryl Watts leaving the Heights pulled the rug out from underneath the Boston College Women’s Hockey program. It knee-capped an offense that was going to be the basis for a rebuild and screwed up scholarship allotment for the next two seasons.

Watts’ and Lonergan’s departures in the off-season made an already tougher-than-normal retool exponentially harder at a time when the team galvanizing around who was returning was the only way to recover from who was not. That’s not to say that those players shouldn’t look out for their own personal best interests if that’s what will make them happy — God knows that the NCAA puts far too many restrictions on these athletes as it is — but it’s just a non-subjective, emotion-free statement of reality that a Patty Kazmaier Award winner and a Patty Kazmaier finalist left their team for their own reasons in the middle of their careers.

It may not be fair to them as individuals to put it that way, but facts are facts, and objectively, they left, and here we are. Next-woman-up only works if those next women actually show up.

Everyone wants to find a problem with its roots in the coaching staff. I’m sure it makes it fun to have something to talk about. But usually the simplest explanation for something is the right one. Maybe the coaching staff that’s been running the program for 13 years didn’t just forget how to coach, forget how to recruit, forget how to run a locker room, forget how to motivate. Maybe BC just lost almost its entire blue line and 63% of its scoring, a big chunk of which was unexpected and was too late to be replaced by a freshman or a transfer of their own.

None of that is a knock on any player currently on the roster — you just do not replace that kind of ice time and that kind of production from that many players all at once. Frankly, it’s a testament to the coaching staff’s ability to bring the team together that BC exceeded expectations right at the start of the season. The Eagles rattled off a 9-0-1 start and climbed into a top-4 spot in the early Pairwise before the departures combined with injuries to national-team-level players still on the roster and everybody just ran out of gas. BC’s been playing with a short bench as it is, but eventually, playing every other game with eleven forwards and four defenders is going to catch up to you.

The Eagles have a handful of games left until the Hockey East tournament. The last few weeks have been a disappointment, but BC’s played some good games this season and maybe the team can rest up for one last surge — it just takes four wins to get the trophy, after all.

So maybe they’ll surprise a couple teams in the tournament and maybe they won’t, but either way, it won’t change the trajectory of the future of this roster. Coach Crowley and Coach Kennedy built the program from the ashes of a scandal right from the start of their tenure and turned BC into a powerhouse. This program’s successes are entirely of their making. The next title push may or may not have been pushed back a bit, but you can bet they’ll have the Eagles right back in the title hunt with another class or two. They’ve already done it before.