The build-up to the season for the men has seen a multipart series attempt to grasp where the men's program will be when the season begins. The women's program has been accompanied with promotion of the upcoming contest but few critical assessments thus far from this corner. Why the disparity?
The men's program ended last season in a pride-reducing sweeping at home. The Lady Rouge appeared last season in the ECAC Hockey Championship Final for the sixth consecutive time. Yes, Harvard did get the best of them. But, hey, it is not a rivalry in the academic sense if the Big Red does not take its lumps occasionally. One could say that with victories in the last three postseason meetings with the Crimson, Cornell might have been due for a loss to a quality program that was having a particularly potent season. Trust me, the loss hurt and no member of the Lynah Faithful deserving of the name, least of all this writer, accepts a loss to Harvard as a given, but it was understandable. The carnelian and white ended the season in a battling loss to the eventual national f̶i̶r̶s̶t̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶e̶r̶ ̶(̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶n̶a̶t̶u̶r̶a̶l̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶H̶a̶r̶v̶a̶r̶d̶i̶a̶n̶s̶) runner-up.
The end of last season for Cornell was not one that the Lynah Faithul accepted. It was nonetheless an ending that still made the Rouge's fanbase and the University proud. This writer doled out some rare criticism last season when Cornell was faltering. Cornellians expect greatness of its hockey program. Robust contention for a national championship always should be the goal of Derraugh's team and expectation of the Lynah Faithful.
The women answered this contributor's challenge and more than rose to the challenge in the playoffs with a triumphantly dauntless run to a sixth consecutive ECAC Hockey Championship Final. The Red set a record in so doing. No program since the first ECAC Hockey tournament in 1984 ever has proven to be more consistently among the two most elite programs in the conference. More important than breaking a record, the Lady Rouge on the ice of Cheel Arena demonstrated the work ethic and tenacity that fans of Cornell hockey and Cornellians expect of their teams. That is why last season's heart-wrenching loss to the Crimson was not an entire disappointment (so long as the program promises it won't happen again for a long time).
It is this pride and tenacious surge that erased all earlier doubts which dwarf the large task before this carnelian-and-white edition. Lost to graduation were Emily Fulton, Brianne Jenner, and Jill Saulnier. The careers of those three players will endure the test of time like those of scoring predecessors like Cyndy Schlaepfer, Digit Degidio, Diane Dillon, Missy Gambrell, and Rebecca Johnston have. Fulton, Jenner, and Saulnier created magic on the ice, whether they were on it individually, paired, or collectively. They are special players. Their simultaneous departure leaves unquestionable holes in the Red's offense.
Why is this writer not entirely alarmed? The playoff run was the highlight of last season. The scorers of 41.7% of all of the Red's playoff goals return. The talliers of more than 40% of last season's playoff points return as well. One quarter of all goals that the Big Red scored in the most important portion of the season did not enjoy a senior factoring in scoring. Those totals are not as confidence-inspiring as one would hope for an easy road. One certain thing from last season is that this season's team and this program does not like to do things the easy way. It prefers to play with grit and a chip lightened by hard work.
The 2015-16 team has the combination of character and talent to make such an attitude of a team work. Doug Derraugh, who possesses a knack for recognizing scoring touches (as one of the all-time greatest goal scorers in Cornell hockey history), places the buck at the skates of three players in particular to fill box scores where offensive tallies are missing from the Red's departures. Hanna Bunton is the player whom Derraugh has identified most pointedly.
The four-time ECAC Hockey Champion coach thinks that Bunton "will be key for [Cornell] up front" and is poised "to step into some of the roles of the seniors that left." The Belleville native proved that her readiness matched her potential last season during the closing stretch of last season. Injury did nothing to slow Bunton down in her late-season return. In the closing ten games of the season, Bunton produced 0.30 goals per game. Her playoff form was most impressive as that figure ratcheted up (as does the zealotry of all Cornellians) to 0.50 goals per game. Hanna Bunton scored the Red's ultimate goal of the season against one of the best teams in the nation against the nation's most formidable goaltender. Derraugh and this writer believe that she is ready to pick up this season where she ended last season.
Jess Brown is one of the other two players whose essence he believes will drive the chemistry of this season's team. Somewhat quietly below the surface, largely due to playing on a team with stars of already known national repute, last season saw Jess Brown become one of the best offensive players in the nation. Lekika (if you prefer) always has provided a boost and energy to the team. She blocks shots. She appears fearless in doing the little things with a Corsi number that would be astronomical if one calculated it. But, last season, only the gaudy numbers of Fulton, Jenner, and Saulnier could overshadow her goal-scoring and finishing touch. When the passionate skater from Cleveland returns to the line-up, she will be ready to fill whichever niche that Derraugh or the team needs as she always has been.
The other element of a cadre to which Cornell may turn for some senior scoring is Anna Zorn. Zorn only tallied twice last season. However, much like Bunton, her return from injury saw her renewed. The Rochester forward scored only twice but she chose her moments expertly. Any forward who has the flash to choose moments with the precision that Zorn did last season deserves a large vote of confidence. The then-junior forward tallied 0.33 goals per game upon her return from injury. One of those tallies was a game winner. The other? The now-immortal conversion of a blocked shot into a lone breakaway that began the rally that catapulted Zorn's team all the way to the North Country.
The leadership of this team in the hands of Cassandra Poudrier will be able to "weather every rack." The Francophonic defenseman will lead by example as she has in the past as a steady constant on the blue line. However, in her, the Lynah Faithful have begun to see a germ of more a confident, vocal leadership. She will be more than ready to let loose several vites to goad her team out of any languors in which it finds itself. At the end of the season, the defenseman who makes Golden Knights clatter their gilded vestments is capable of making sure that "the prize we sought is won."
Cassandra Poudrier will contribute in more concrete terms. Her (currently) most famous goal may be the one that gave the Big Red its fourth ECAC Hockey championship in 2014. It may find rivals this season. Exhibitions are often a poor predictor of success. However, Poudrier's shot from the point has shown improvement in its precision rendering it laser-like in this preseason with no loss of its always dependable canon-like qualities.
Stefannie Moak emblematically as the heart of the Cornell teams on which she has been a member will wear a letter above her heart. The Red's currently lone Nova Scotian provides a crucial locker-room presence. This role she has within the team inspires those around her to perform beyond what even they can expect when she takes the ice between the pipes.
The wearer of the other letter is someone whose work ethic and selflessness should floor all of the Lynah Faithful. Taylor Woods proved last season to be one of the most versatile players in the history of the program. Woods saw time as a defenseman and a forward when needed. No matter the position that she filled in a given game, her performances showed no downturns and rivaled those of the best at any position in college hockey.
The two Chicagoans who patrol the blue line will be two to watch for very different reasons. Sydnee Saracco suited up for her first contest in the carnelian-and-white sweater. Injury kept the sophomore defenseman in the bleachers during the 2014-15 season. She seems to have lost very little, if any, of her game. Her development over the course of the season will be exciting to watch. The evolution of her role on the team may prove crucial to the Lady Rouge's success. Now, Erin O'Connor, the best freshman player in college hockey to return for a second campaign, seems to have slid easily from a role as a freshman defender learning systems and gaining confidence to her new position as possible mentor to promising freshman Micah Hart.
As all members of the Faithful know, Doug Derraugh has his roster replete with netminding talent even beyond Moak. No matter one's opinions on the Keystone Pipeline, one can agree that the possible detour of Amanda Mazzotta's pipeline flowing goaltending talent to East Hill will be missed dearly. Derraugh seemed to have stockpiled all able netminders before the trickle dried. Any one of Cornell's other three goaltenders would be viable starters at any other program.
Marlene Boissonnault and Amelia Boughn have the hallmarks of what one would expect of Mazzotta-approved and -coached goaltenders. Paula Voorheis is the anticipated mainstay, starting goaltender despite a goaltending talent-flush roster. Big Paula earned the right of this assumption. When Cornell found little offensive inertia, Paula held a pointed attack from the Saints of St. Lawrence at bay until the Red could muster a response. The now-junior goaltender registered a 0.944 save percentage in the second game of the 2015 ECAC Hockey tournament. This coupled with 0.945 save percentage during the opening round of last season's playoffs shows that Voorheis is ready to deliver big-game performances when the Lady Rouge need them.
Last season opened with Boston College. This season the Eagles come to Lynah Rink. The Bostonians have not ventured outside of Chestnut Hill in the season's three weeks of competition for non-Ivy League programs. In the first game last season, the Big Red deserved clearly its fate. Cornell deserved a fate far better for its effort than it received in the second contest. The second game witnessed two teams that were matched fairly evenly throughout most of the contest.
This Cornell team will need to improve upon that moral victory of playing a slightly better second game against Boston College last season. This season it should be different. The Lady Rouge enjoy the best playoff environment in college hockey. These contests against Boston College almost certainly will have playoff repercussions for both teams. The Lynah Faithful need to bring a playoff atmosphere to our sanctuary on Friday evening at 7:00 pm.
The crowd and environment can play a decisive role in claiming victory over Boston College. Don Vaughan remarked in 1996 on Lynah Rink's playoff crowds as "be[ing] good for three or four [goals]." If the Lynah Faithful bring the full force of their volksgeist to bear on the Eagles, even the lopsided contests of last season at Conte Forum would have been even. Derraugh's team seems ready to seize the moment if the Faithful set the stage.
Outsiders affix modest expectations to this season's team. Another team not too long ago entered a season with lower expectations. That team even counted a senior Zorn as a member. It was battle-tested throughout a tough out-of-conference schedule which prepared it for five of seven postseason contests that the tally of one goal decided. The team was much more of character and work ethic than it was absolute talent. That team ended in the pinnacle contest of the season on March 21, 2010. This season's team accompanied with marginally higher expectations but equally dependent upon the character over natural talent can aim to have one more playoff contest decided in its favor.