Greg Fargo was a coach with an impossible dream four years ago, when he set off for Hamden, Conn., just to watch Clarkson play Minnesota for the NCAA women’s hockey championship.
Fargo had his own championship aspirations at Colgate, even though his record after two seasons at the tiny school in upstate New York was 21-43-5.
Clarkson and Colgate are from the same conference, the ECAC, and when Clarkson shocked the Gophers that day 5-4, Fargo felt a little closer to his dream.
“We always felt if a team like Clarkson could do it, then Colgate could do it, too,” Fargo said. “And here we are.”
The Colgate Raiders, just three years removed from a 7-25-2 season, will face their rivals from Clarkson on Sunday for the NCAA championship at Ridder Arena.
Since the NCAA began crowning a champion in 2001, this is the first time a WCHA team hasn’t been part of the title game. The conference claimed the NCAA championship every year until Clarkson upset Minnesota in 2014.
“Prior to that, probably not a lot of people in the hockey world knew who Clarkson was,” said Matt Desrosiers, the team’s 10th-year coach. “We were a small school in upstate New York. We weren’t a big hockey power.”
They sure are now. Minnesota rebounded from that first Clarkson loss to win the 2015 and 2016 NCAA titles. But the Golden Knights defeated the Gophers in last year’s semifinals, then knocked off Wisconsin 3-0 for another national championship.
Now, Clarkson (35-4-1) has a chance for its third title in five years. But the one team standing in its way is Colgate (34-5-1), a looming danger led by Fargo, the National Coach of the Year. This is the Raiders’ first NCAA tournament.
“It speaks to the parity in women’s hockey,” Fargo said. “Our game is getting better year in and year out. I think we will continue to see even more different teams in the final.”
Breanne Wilson-Bennett was a freshman three years ago when Colgate lost 25 games. But there she was Friday, putting up three goals and an assist in the 4-3, double-overtime win over Wisconsin in the NCAA semifinals.
“When I committed, Coach Fargo had a plan,” Wilson-Bennett said. “I bought in. He looked me in the eye and told me this is where we’re going to be eventually. The seven seniors on this team, all of us jumped on board.”
Clarkson might be the defending NCAA champ from Potsdam, N.Y., which is pressed close to the Canadian border. But Colgate made the 150-mile trek north from Hamilton, N.Y., and beat the Golden Knights in October.
Clarkson evened the series with a win at Colgate in late January, and then defeated the Raiders 3-0 on March 4 for the ECAC tournament championship.
“We definitely have unfinished business with them,” said Colgate defenseman Livia Altmann, who played for Switzerland in last months’ Olympics.
Clarkson entered the eight-team NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed but needed overtime to get past both Mercyhurst 2-1 and Ohio State 1-0.
Friday’s semifinal against the Buckeyes was a goaltending showcase. Clarkson senior Shea Tiley made 41 saves, and Loren Gabel finally slipped a puck past Ohio State’s Kassidy Sauve 16:12 into overtime.
Desrosiers and his assistant coaches stayed at Ridder Arena to watch the Colgate/Wisconsin game but sent the players to the hotel for rest. Neither team practiced on Saturday. Their bodies were too tired, their nerves too frayed. Besides, everyone knows their opponent. Everyone involved knows what day it is.
“It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season — 3/18, that’s the day we want to be playing on,” Bennett-Wilson said. “That’s the day we want to be champions.”