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10 greatest women’s WCHA freshman seasons

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Jennifer Harss has played more minutes than any freshman goalie in WCHA women's history. Almost 60 of those minutes came via overtime in an eventual win over Cornell for the 2010 national title. (Carlos Gonzalez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

A women’s WCHA freshman has backstopped two of the first 17 national champions in NCAA hockey history. Another 10 have had a hand in a championship-clinching goal, including two on the same play in 2013, 2010 and 2008. In one of those instances, Minnesota-Duluth rookie Jessica Wong scored in triple-overtime.

That trend speaks to the way unhesitant acclimation from new crops of talent has helped to perpetuate this league’s Cyclopean stature. It has kept three perennial contenders steamrolling with nary a hitch. It has also spawned moments of hope for the middle- and lower-class programs looking to reach that higher rung.

Among the bigwigs from Minnesota, UMD and Wisconsin, singling out a sensational rookie is tougher than it is elsewhere. While current U.S. national program staples like Meghan Duggan, Amanda Kessel and Hilary Knight were forces from the start, their distinctively dominant runs came in later campaigns.

Conversely, Ohio State and St. Cloud State have had multiple outstanding newbies whose output rivaled those of their envied opponents despite a dearth of support. With that said, even the dynasties have had some VIPs come in and hit the ice sprinting, sometimes surpassing incumbent team leaders on the stat sheet.

Based on their individual impact in a given campaign, both on their team and on the league and national leaderboards, here are the 10 most outstanding rookies in women’s WCHA history.

10. Natalie Darwitz, Minnesota, 2002-03
In a year where three rookies comprised part of the nation’s seven scorers with at least two points per game, Darwitz led the Gophers with 68 in 33. Fellow freshman Krissy Wendell, who totaled 27 goals and 28 helpers, might have eclipsed that total had she not missed eight games.

Come what may, Darwitz’s output was a 20-point improvement on Minnesota’s previous production leader (Ronda Curtin) and a 15-point jump on La Toya Clarke’s output in 2000-01. Her log of 33 goals and 35 assists made for the most balanced combination of playmaking and finishing among NCAA elites, and earned her top-10 consideration for the Patty Kazmaier Award.

Because of the way she stood out on her team’s production chart, Darwitz edges out Canadian contemporary Caroline Ouellette for a spot here. Ouelette did post 73 points as a Minnesota-Duluth rookie in 2002-03, but had Jenny Potter, Erika Holst and other explosive upperclassmen on her side.

10 greatest women’s WCHA freshman seasons

Within weeks of orientation, Alex Rigsby proved she was Wisconsin’s solution to replace Jessie Vetter. She lost only one decision en route to the 2011 national title. (Photo by Harry Scull Jr./NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

9. Ricki-Lee Doyle, St. Cloud State, 2000-01
The first year of NCAA women’s hockey was the year of the women’s WCHA freshman. Out of seven member schools that season, five had a rookie as their leading scorer.

With 62 points to her credit, Doyle was the second-most prolific of those first-year phenoms, and fourth among WCHA producers of all class levels. Moreover, she tallied 15 more points than the Huskies’ second-leading scorer and 23 more than their second-most productive forward.

Adding to her data’s remarkable radiation, she was also SCSU’s penalty-minute leader with 34 minor infractions. Despite that missed time, she made opponents regret their own infractions with 12 power-play tallies.

8. Alex Rigsby, Wisconsin, 2010-11
Her 1.76 goals-against average was good for seventh in the nation, though it ranked sixth among those who played the majority of their team’s minutes. Her .921 save percentage ranked much lower (a five-party tie for 19th in the nation), but was still beyond reproach.

But most critically, Rigsby arrived and seized the starting job after the Badgers endured an off-year following the 2009 graduation of Jessie Vetter. Between the return of Olympians Duggan and Knight up front and Rigsby’s emergence, they stormed to their second national title in three years.

For her part, Rigsby played for three quarters of that ride, compiling a 27-1-2 record. For the season’s penultimate win in the national semis, she outdueled Vetter’s former Olympic backup, Boston College senior Molly Schaus.

7. Jeni Creary, Ohio State, 2001-02
The Kazmaier committee rarely recognizes players who are not representing marquee Division I institutions with a clear shot at a national title. That is unless the player is a statistical champion, and therefore a surefire top-three candidate. But in 2001-02, the powers that be bestowed Creary with hard-earned honors as a top-10 finalist.

Third in the league and 10th in the nation with 44 points, Creary was crucial in keeping the Buckeyes above .500 after their previous scoring leader, rookie blueliner Kelli Halcisak, transferred to Providence.

One of only four rookies on the 2001-02 roster, Creary doubled the team’s second-leading producer’s output with 26 goals. Her 44 points were 16 more than the first runner-up on the OSU leaderboard. And the team mustered its second straight 18-win campaign.

10 greatest women’s WCHA freshman seasons

Hannah Brandt was quick to show Megan Bozek and the rest of Minnesota’s 2012-13 upperclassmen that the program’s replenished standard of excellence was in capable hands. (Vince Muzik/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

6. Meghan Hunter, Wisconsin, 2000-01
Hunter was the first great women’s Badger, leading the offense in the final two years of the pre-Mark Johnson era. And with 42 goals and 78 points overall, including 57 in league play, she was the first women’s WCHA freshman to top the scoring chart. For that, she was also the league’s first rookie to finish among the top 10 Kazmaier candidates.

If you had deleted her 13 power-play goals, she still would have finished third behind two Duluth sophomores. Among her teammates, she outclassed runner-up Kendra Antony with 28 more points in 35 totals games, and by a 22-point margin in 28 WCHA contests.

Of those 35 games, she mustered at least one point in 33, and a goal in 28. She tuned the mesh once in each of five meetings the eventual national champion UMD Bulldogs, adding two assists in a 6-5 overtime loss in the conference semifinals.

5. Hannah Brandt, Minnesota, 2012-13
Whereas most collegiate forwards start on the wing before migrating to center as upperclassmen, Brandt was a top-six pivot from opening night onward. Her hat trick in her debut and six-point performance the next night set the tone for her indispensable role in Minnesota’s title defense.

Though overshadowed by Kessel, Brandt still had 25 more points than the third-leading Gophers producer. She never missed a game in 2012-13, and averaged precisely two points per night with a total of 82. Seven of her goals and 12 of her helpers combined to clinch 19 of Minnesota’s 41 wins.

By season’s end, she had Kessel on her right flank on the first line. And as her last statistical contribution of the campaign, she deposited a shorthanded tally to raise a 2-0 upper hand in the NCAA final. The Gophers paced themselves to a 6-3 triumph over Boston University, securing a 41-0-0 finish.

4. Janine Alder, St. Cloud State, 2016-17
Only five Division I netminders faced and stopped more shots than Alder in 2016-17. Playing 79.1 percent of SCSU’s crease time, she retained a .926 save percentage, tying her with Harvard’s Brianna Lang for 16th among NCAA leaders.

She did this while trying to bail out a team whose defensive efficiency ranked 28th out of 35 in the nation. While she might not have logged nearly as many minutes as one other goaltender ranked higher on this list, she had more hole-riddled layers before her.

As another testament to Alder’s impact, the Huskies were 0-5-0 when she was not the goalie of record. Her two sophomore colleagues consumed 10 percent of the minutes apiece, each retaining a goals-against average north of 4.00 and a sub-.900 save percentage.

10 greatest women’s WCHA freshman seasons

After Minnesota-Duluth lost the 2007 national final, then lost its top two scorers to graduation, Haley Irwin stepped right in and piloted the Bulldogs to unfinished business against Wisconsin. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

3. Haley Irwin, Minnesota-Duluth, 2007-08
The second of four women’s WCHA freshmen to ever lead the league in scoring, Irwin tallied 60 points to pilot UMD to the 2008 national title. That output and production rate were both good for sixth in the nation. New Hampshire’s Jenn Wakefield was second-best among all rookies with 46 points.

Among national playmakers, Irwin was one of four to average at least one assist per night, totaling 37 in as many games. She eclipsed the veteran likes of Tessa Bonhomme and Gigi Marvin among WCHA skaters, and was 10 helpers ahead of runner-up Jesse Scanzano of Mercyhurst for the lead among national rookies.

Like Brandt, Irwin was a top-six center at the college level without delay, but was a more visible difference-maker in her first NCAA title run. Fellow freshman Laura Fridfrinsson played in two more games and spent substantially less time in the sin bin, but finished second to Irwin on the Bulldogs chart with 16 fewer points.

Irwin’s final point of 2007-08 was the icebreaker and eventual clincher in a 4-0 win over the two-time defending champion Wisconsin for the NCAA crown.

2. Monique Lamoureux, Minnesota, 2008-09
Only Julie Chu (Harvard, 2002-03) and Brandt (Minnesota, 2012-13) have had more prolific freshman seasons in NCAA women’s hockey history. Lamoureux’s 75 points were a cozy third on the national leaderboard behind Mercyhurst’s Meghan Agosta and Wisconsin’s Knight.

The nation’s No. 4 producer that year: Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique’s twin, who logged 65 points. The inseparable pair supplied eight game-winning goals apiece in their lone year at “The U,” giving them the deciding say in half of Minnesota’s 32 wins.

And they did this despite leading the team in penalty time as well. For her part, Monique supplied five tallies and two helpers while shorthanded, including one when PIM leader Jocelyne was in the bin.

1. Jennifer Harss, Minnesota-Duluth, 2009-10
How intrastate rival Noora Raty finished among 2010’s three Kazmaier finalists when Harss did not even make the top-10 cut will never cease to boggle the mind.

Yes, Raty had more sparkling statistics in her rookie campaign. But remember that she only played 65 percent of the Gophers minutes.

Harss had a more grueling ride with the Bulldogs, getting the nod and the decision in 39 of 41 outings. She was pulled from the second game of the season, but retained the starting job through unequivocal resiliency.

After a 6-3 loss to Ohio State in mid-February, Harss backstopped a nine-game winning streak that culminated in a 3-2, triple-overtime victory over Cornell for the national championship. That marathon swelled her season total to 75 minutes and 49 seconds of sudden-death action, during which she stopped 30 out of 30 shots, helping Duluth to a 4-0-2 overtime record.

Al Daniel

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