NCAA Women's Hockey: The Wisconsin Badgers are 2023 National Champions
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NCAA Women's Hockey: The Wisconsin Badgers are 2023 National Champions

NCAA Women's Hockey: The Wisconsin Badgers are 2023 National Champions by Nicole Haase

It's difficult to call a program like Wisconsin an underdog, but after suffering the longest losing streak in program history, having to play in a regional semifinal and becoming the lowest seeded team to win a title, the description is as apt as any.

They were outshot, outblocked and lost more faceoffs than they won, but they managed to hold off the number one seed who'd been atop the polls most of the year to earn their program's seventh NCAA Championship.

Everywhere you look there are interesting threads to follow with this team.

Captain Britta Curl returned to the Badgers after the disappointment of not playing with Team USA in the Olympcs. Since she missed last season, this run gives her a third straight title and a 10-0 record in the NCAA Tournament.

With a roster full of big names, the Badgers' Frozen Four was a showcase of their young talent. Three of Wisconsin's four goals were scored by freshmen, including Sunday's national-championship-winning goal from Kirsten Simms. Four Badgers were named to the All-Tournament team and three of them were rookies - Simms, KK Harvey and Laila Edwards. While the other teams in the Frozen Four are registering massive losses in both numbers and talent, the Badgers have a relatively small group of graduates to replace and a huge corps of talented and now experienced players returning next season.

Goalie Cami Kronish is a redshirt senior who played in just 11 games before the start of this season. By the end, she was the full-time starter who gave Ohio State their only shutout of the season and was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.

Jesse Compher transferred to Wisconsin after four years at Boston University for the chance to play under Mark Johnson and the opportunity to win a title. She credited Natalie Buchbinder with being a big part of her decision. Buchbinder was centralized with Team USA, but did not make the final Olympic roster. A season-ending injury in late January took her off the ice, but Compher said she's been a massive part of the team down the stretch.

The NCAA only officially assigns seeds to the top four teams in the tournament. Wisconsin was ranked sixth when the bracket came out and was slotted in the traditional sixth seed location for an 11 team bracket. No matter how you descrbe it - sixth seed or unseeded - they're only team to win the title that way. As this is only the second tournament with an expanded field, they're also the only team to win four NCAA games en route to the title.

The last three national championship programs had each won two in a row. Ohio State has won six of seven games against the Badgers and were 3-1 this season, including coming back from down 1-0 in the final four minutes of the game to tie it, take the lead in the final minute and then add an empty-netter to win the game and secure their first-ever regular season title. The trophy was presented on the ice at Wisconsin's rink.

There was basically every reason to believe that this Wisconsin team was not one that could compete for a national championship, much less win it. They lost to Quinnipiac and St. Cloud State. They had long scoring droughts and gave up games late. They had a backup goalie and thin defense. They simply were not the group that could put together a run through the top three teams in the country.

The tough times bonded them together and taught the Badgers the skills they needed to muscle out a 1-0 win over Ohio State. They kept themselves in a good enough position to have a chance at the end of the regular season and that's all they needed. They used the conference tournament to learn more about themselves and their opponents and when the NCAA Tournament began, they were the best team they could be in the moment.

Kudos to Ohio State for an amazing season where they maintained their spot on top of the mountain while everyone else was determined to bring them down. Only one team gets to go home happy on the final day of the season, but that doesn't change what a stellar season the Buckeyes put together. They'll have nearly impossible roles to fill with Emma Maltais and Sophie Jaques moving on, not to mention the other fifth year players who's eligibility is completed. This group bought in when Nadine Muzerall was selling a middling program and a whole lot of hope, but no concrete evidence of what they could reasonably do. Now they're a national powerhouse and a destination players dream of. Muzerall had the big ideas for what the program could be, but the players made that a reality. They are truly leaving Ohio State women's hockey better than they found it and that's worth far more than any titles they might accumulate.