Friendship gives way for Gophers, Badgers with title on the line

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 18, 2012 - 12:23 AM

Wisconsin star Brianna Decker, the Patty Kazmaier Award winner, and the Gophers' Jen Schoullis will be all business in the NCAA final.

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Minnesota's Jen Schoullis

Photo: Jeffrey Thompson, Star Tribune

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DULUTH — At Saturday's Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award ceremony, Gophers forward Jen Schoullis was delighted to see Wisconsin's Brianna Decker named the player of the year in women's college hockey. The two played together at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, and Schoullis got tears in her eyes as she watched her friend accept the trophy.

Their mutual affection, however, has its limits. In Decker's acceptance speech, she promised Sunday's NCAA championship game between the Gophers and Badgers would be "a bloodbath.'' Schoullis didn't expect either side to be concerned with hurting anyone's feelings, saying, "Nobody really cares when their friends go home crying.''

The Minnesota-Wisconsin border battles always brim with bravado. The fact that the fifth one this season will decide the NCAA title -- at the convenient venue of Amsoil Arena, which is practically on the state line -- just adds to the fire.

The rest of the hockey world might be bored with seeing a WCHA team hoist the championship trophy. The top-ranked Badgers and the No. 2 Gophers, the league's ultimate frenemies, couldn't be happier to be playing each other again. And no matter which one goes home crying, they anticipate their mutual respect and admiration to remain strong -- just like their rivalry.

"I don't think there could be a better setup for this game,'' Gophers forward Sarah Erickson said. "I think we've been the best two teams in the nation. To battle it off, especially in a border battle like this, is incredible for women's hockey. It's going to be a highly competitive game, one that will be fun to watch and be a part of.''

Sunday's game marks the 12th NCAA championship in women's hockey, and the WCHA will maintain its streak of winning every one. The Badgers will be going for their fifth in seven years, a string that began in 2006 when they defeated the Gophers 3-0 at Mariucci Arena.

The Gophers are pursuing their third NCAA championship with a team widely considered among the best in program history. The legendary Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell powered them to titles in 2004 and 2005. While this year's group does not have a superstar of that magnitude, coach Brad Frost said, it is the deepest and most balanced roster he can recall.

Goaltender Noora Raty has set Gophers season records with 32 victories and 10 shutouts, aided by a large and versatile defensive corps. Amanda Kessel -- a Madison native itching to play her hometown team with a title on the line -- leads the team with 79 points, the third-most scored by a Gopher in a single season. Every line can score, and the power play is ranked third in the nation with a success rate of 25.1 percent.

Both coaches fielded questions this week about why the WCHA has dominated the championship game. Johnson chalks it up to the league's highly competitive nature, a crucible that ensures its top teams are exceptionally well-prepared for postseason play. That is especially true of the Gophers-Badgers battles; this season, the Gophers are 2-1-1 against Wisconsin, with the loss and victories all decided by one goal.

Frost is friendly with Badgers coach Mark Johnson, as are the staffs of the two teams. Johnson noted that several Gophers and Badgers players have been on national-team rosters together, with some of them sharing rooms on the road.

Some time in the future, those friendships will be renewed. Not on Sunday, when they will be put on the shelf for a greater cause.

"Decker is one of my good friends,'' Schoullis said. "On the ice, it's completely different. With the rivalry between Minnesota and Wisconsin, it's very competitive. Once we hit the ice, none of us are friends.''

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