NCAA Women's Hockey: Ohio State are the 2022 National Champions
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NCAA Women's Hockey: Ohio State are the 2022 National Champions

NCAA Women's Hockey: Ohio State are the 2022 National Champions by Nicole Haase

Kenzie Hauswirth's shot from the near boards deflected off the skate of UMD's Nina Jobst-Smith past Emma Söderberg to score the game-winning goal and give the Buckeyes their first-ever National Championship Sunday.

After not getting on the board first for much of the playoffs, OSU had opened the scoring with a hustle play from Paetyn Levis and Clair DeGeorge on the power play. Ohio State averaged just less than a power play goal a game this season, scoring 36 in 37 games.

Minnesota Duluth responded when Naomi Rogge scored her second of the weekend, tipping in a shot from distance by Kailee Skinner.

The Buckeyes took the lead again 24 seconds into the third on a busted play by Emma Söderberg, who came out of the net to play an overpass. She was pressured and cleared the pass right to DeGeorge, and then was tripped up in the process. DeGeorge skated around a couple of defenders to improve her shot at the empty net and backhanded it in to give OSU the lead.

Minnesota Duluth tied the game quickly, when Élizabeth Giguère scored her fifth career NCAA tournament goal, sneaking a wrister past Amanda Thiele.

But Hauswirth's goal proved to be the difference maker and the Buckeyes were able to control the puck and keep Duluth from equalizing a third time. They won faceoffs and kept Söderberg from being able to leave the ice until mere seconds remained in the game.

Ohio State lost a game in mid-February on a gutsy move by Muzerall, where she pulled the goalie in a tie game and it backfired. A win in regulation would have put the team in position to win a WCHA regular-season title, something they've never done. Instead, it was an upset loss that Levis said stung quite a bit at the time.

But with the benefit of hindsight, it was an important turning point in the season and Levis said it helped the team see the importance of a single bounce of the puck or a single play in the game.  "I think it woke us up a bit and we went into playoffs hungry. It put us in a great spot honestly, to end up having the success we had. It put fire under us," she said.

The Buckeyes went on to win 10 straight games, the last of which was Sunday's thrilling championship.

The title is the culmination of a six-year rebuild under the direction of first-time head coach Nadine Muzerall. She was hired in mid-September of 2016 as the third coach in less than two years. Each of the previous two coaches had left in disgrace.

The women's hockey team had been treated like an afterthought at the university, with little oversight or support. Muzerall made sure her team could never be ignored. With Sunday's win, they became just the second women's program in Ohio State athletics history to win an NCAA national title. (The only other team to do it is women's rowing, who won three titles from 2013-2015.)

In her first season with Ohio State, where she arrived on campus three days before hockey practice started, the Buckeyes went 14-18-5 and finished fifth in the WCHA. The following season, they were second in the conference and made their first-ever NCAA tournament and Frozen Four. They received an NCAA bid in three of the next four years. After the 2020 NCAA tournament was cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they advanced to the 2021 Frozen Four, where they lost to Wisconsin in the semifinals. But they returned as the top-ranked team this year, and went on to win it all.

It's a remarkable turnaround and proof that belief and investment in a program make an incredible difference in what can be accomplished. Muzerall has always brought a confidence, swagger and tenacity to her coaching and from the beginning, the players at Ohio State bought in.

"First and foremost, you notice how much she wants to win," said Liz Schepers, who started at Ohio State the year after Muzerall. "When you have a coach that works that hard for you, you want to put it back into the program. This team has the fingerprints of so many leaders that came before me. So many people that were part of this program that put in the dirty work and set the standard for our culture. You know the standard when you put on that Ohio State jersey."

The Buckeyes returned a number of players from the 2021 Frozen Four squad and then brought in eight transfer players, including Hauswirth and DeGeorge, to help round out the roster. Blueliner Sophie Jaques, a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist, had a breakout year, becoming one of the top scoring players in the country at any position. After tallying just four points in the abbreviated COVID season, she more than doubled her career output in goals, assists, and points, finishing the season with 21 goals, 38 assists and 59 points – good for third overall in the country.

Despite the loss, it was also a statement season for Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs were a somewhat controversial final at-large pick in the 2021 NCAA tournament and entered this year's bracket seeded eighth. Without the expanded bracket, UMD would not have received a bid. Often thought of as the fourth team in their own conference, the Bulldogs proved in two consecutive seasons that they are a threat on the national level and deserve respect. They clawed back in this game twice after miscues, and skated hard and pushed the pace along with the Buckeyes despite having played two overtime periods on Friday. It was a hard-fought game by both squads worthy of a title match, and yet another example of what is possible in this sport at its highest levels.

(Photo: Justin Berl/NCAA)