The women's hockey team is making history as it takes on American Collegiate Hockey Association Women's Division 1 National Championships for the first time since the program began seven years ago.
Along with going to nationals, the team has won its conference title. That accomplishment alone makes the coach proud.
"It feels pretty amazing," head coach Lindsey Ellis said. "Not only just with this group, but going to nationals for the first time, it all feels like it came together with this specific group."
The team's season consisted of 24 games and the Sun Devils currently hold an 18-4-2 overall record. Notably, graduate student Mason Walker had 29 points this season, with 20 goals and nine assists. Junior Sydney Paulsen had 27 points, scoring 14 goals and 13 assists.
"I think it's really big, especially for the seniors, because they came in four years ago and could never have imagined going to nationals. So to make that a reality is pretty special for the upperclassmen," Walker said.
Walker previously graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh and played for its hockey team. This is only his first year playing for ASU, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he still has two more years of eligibility to play in Arizona. He has plenty of experience to help guide the team in nationals.
"I know that myself personally, I've been to Nationals before. I've won Nationals before at that NCAA level. So I personally know what needs to be done going in," Walker said. "I think making sure that the younger players going in sort of understand, even though it is that bigger stage, as long as you play hockey, you’re gonna be fine."
The Sun Devils' first matchup in nationals is against Maryville University, a team they haven't seen before, but the players and coaches know they shouldn’t change anything they’ve been doing.
"We know they're a high-pressure team, so obviously, just playing with the speed and confidence that we have and not getting nervous just because it's nationals," Ellis said. "Kind of going in just like it’s another game."
The team has had a couple of keys to success this season that has gotten it so far.
"I think the buy-in to our team culture is really important, just in terms of preparing ourselves for games, but also just focusing on the task at hand and working game-by-game no matter who the opponent is," Ellis said. "Commitment, leadership, accountability and work ethic is what we embody as a team and what we expect and what our expectations are around."
Junior assistant captain Samantha Lutsch said focus and teamwork have been crucial.
"I think what we've done well this season is matching our mental with our physical, which means dialing in and focusing to make sure that we're ready for any opponent we face," Lutsch said. "Just making sure that our physicality is up to par and working together as a team because that’s the most important thing."
Lutsch has been on the team since her freshman year; this is her first season in a captain position. She recognizes how special this season has been for the program.
"The feeling is surreal because since I've been here with this program, we've made it to the finals every year, but we would always end up in a close-game battle where we'd lose," Lutsch said. "And it was just always right there, and it was always in the far-end vision. But to finally get there is just an amazing experience."
The game plan for nationals is playing hard and soaking it all in.
"I think as long as we're working together and not trying to be individualistic and just trying to do things on our own, I think that'll help us to flow together well," Lutsch said. "Another expectation I have is to have fun because this is our first time being there, and it's a really exciting moment."
The national championships are taking place this year at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and ASU plays its first matchup Thursday at 10 a.m. EST.
Edited by Walker Smith, Kathryn Field, Reagan Priest and Grace Copperthite.
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