It should’ve been easy. It should’ve been a simple, come-in-and-get-the-job-done kind of game. But the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference Champions, down by two goals heading into the third period, realized that this was a championship that had to be earned.
When forward Sascha Hughes-Caley took a pass from forward Elizabeth Hitti and snapped the goal past the North Jersey Phoenix’s netminder, it was all over and the “beautiful” goal all but sealed the deal for the Quakers.
Penn’s women’s ice hockey club walked away with the hardware after a grueling 5-3 victory and an undefeated season for the third time in program history. Despite its lack of financial support, the program has proven itself to be a legitimate contender in the realm of collegiate hockey.
The hockey program at Penn have struggled to establish itself after the men’s varsity team was cut in the 1980s. While the University cut back its funding for golf, gymnastics and hockey, hockey was the only sport to lose its varsity accreditation.
The women’s ice hockey club got its start in the DVCHC - an ACHA Division III league - in 2003 with only four founding members, but found immediate success by winning the championship in 2004 and 2005.
But being a club team diminishes the pride of playing hockey for neither former varsity athletes nor new players. Coaches Brett Kauffman and Brett Torgan have built a consistently dominant club, one that also prides itself on its ability to enjoy the game.
“It’s a lot more laid back ... and I think in a lot of ways a lot more fun,” senior captain and defenseman Meredith Dominguez said. “But we still take it pretty seriously obviously.”
Dominguez, a key contributor to this year’s championship run, was also a member of Penn’s varsity rowing program and played circuit hockey in her time in high school.
Last season, the Quakers fell short in the DVCHC tournament due to key injuries across the board. At one point, Dominguez recalls that there were only four defensemen in the rotation for an entire game - and anyone who’s played hockey knows that anything north of 25 minutes of ice time is taxing, to say the least.
“Some of the new girls have been really positive and have been a key addition to the team,” team president and center Jennifer Kang said. “We’ve ... developed a better sense of coherence and unity.”
This year, the tight nucleus of hockey players stormed through their season, scoring the second-most goals in the league with 63 tallies and yielding a league-best 15 goals through 10 games. No other team’s defense compared to the Quakers, as the next best defensive team gave up 20 goals through its 10-game regular season.
In light terms, it was easy pickings for the Quakers heading into the tournament. The three-day tournament was played in Harrington, Del . The Quakers earned a first-round bye thanks to their No. 1 seed in the tournament and took on St. Joseph’s in the next round.
“We played our semifinal game Sunday, which was too close for comfort,” Dominguez said. “We weren’t really expecting that. But then we won the game and played on that Monday for the championship.”
Kang and Dominguez shared a relieved chuckle about their semifinal match-up with St. Joe’s that resulted in a 6-5 win for the Red and Blue.
In the championship match, Penn took on the North Jersey Phoenix , the third-place team from the conference and a defensively stout squad.
The Quakers received a tougher challenge than anyone expected.
“We walked into the championship thinking it was going to be like the rest of the season, but we were surprised,” Dominguez said. “It was very close. We were down by two goals one period which we had never been this year.
“We were tied until the last minute and a half.”
Then it happened. The team pulled out a victory and the players huddled in their zone at the net for what Kang recalled as “the longest time ever.”
In their celebration, the two seniors - Kang and Dominguez - spoke about the future of the program. Now, having been undefeated and completely dominant over the past few seasons, Penn women’s ice hockey may move within their league from the Ashly Moyer Memorial Division to the Jennifer Parcell Memorial Division, which features other area schools like Rutgers and Villanova.
Championships like this mark the intense passion and effort these players put into the hockey program. And if the wins keep piling up, the program can keep moving to the next level.
Football has its rings, track has its medals and other sports have plaques and trophies. But the real symbol of pride for Kang, Dominguez and the 2013-2014 club is their banner which will hang in the Class of ’23 rink.
No matter where its program goes, that banner will mark the squad as champions forever.