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Clarkson women’s hockey team keeps its eye on the goal

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POTSDAM — When Lindsay Williams first donned the green and gold colors of Clarkson University before the women’s hockey team’s first season at the Division I level just a little more than a decade ago, who knew what was in store for the fledgling program?

Now, 11 years later, Clarkson’s program finds itself at the pinnacle of the women’s college hockey world as the team will compete in the Frozen Four for the first time.

“It is so amazing to see how far the team has grown over the years, especially this season,” Williams said. “When we began this journey back in 2003, our goal was never to win a national championship in the four years we were playing, it was to try and set the pace and the culture of what type of team Clarkson was going to be in the future.”

Williams, who as a freshman served as an assistant captain in the Golden Knights’ first season of 2003-04, was one of the trailblazers of the Division I program.

Clarkson (29-5-5), ECAC Hockey’s regular-season champion, which is ranked second and fourth in the national polls, will play in a national semifinal against Mercyhurst at 8 tonight on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

Midwest powers Wisconsin, ranked fourth, and Minnesota, which is ranked No. 1 in the country, will compete in the first semifinal at 5 p.m., with the national title game scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday.

“This is awesome,” senior forward and team captain Carly Mercer said. “It’s the first time in program history, so it’s special for not only the team but the school in the general. From all the students and the staff who have put in work day in and day out — it’s exciting for everyone.”

Success at the national level is nothing new for the Golden Knights, as the team is skating in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season and the third time in five years.

“It’s just a testament to how hard we work, including our coaching staff,” Mercer said. “They go out and they recruit all the time. They’re away from their families and they’re missing games and practices to make sure that we get the best players. To make it to a Frozen Four when the program is so young is a testament to them and how hard they work.”

The Golden Knights have set a single-season school record for victories (29), including the program’s first NCAA Tournament win in a 3-1 decision over Boston College at Clarkson’s Cheel Arena on Saturday.

“It’s amazing,” Clarkson co-coach Shannon Desrosiers said. “When Rick (Seeley), Ted (Wisner, who now coaches at St. Lawrence) and I started, we had a team where almost everyone was a freshman, besides one transfer who was a junior. They were a group that was extremely hard-working and we still owe a lot to them because they are the foundation of what we still believe in terms of work ethic and battling and competing.”

It didn’t take long for the Clarkson program to emerge as a successful one. Including this season, it has forged nine winning campaigns in 11 years and has qualified for the ECAC Hockey playoffs in all 10 of its seasons in the conference.

“From day one, Shannon was always my role model,” Williams said. “Since we were such a young program, and she had recently graduated (from St. Lawrence) and captained a successful team, I always looked to her for advice. She trained, conditioned and pushed us to limits we never knew we could reach. She was so inspiring and motivating.”

Interestingly enough, Desrosiers, who as a player starred for archrival St. Lawrence University and helped lead the Saints to the title game of the first women’s Frozen Four in 2001, has been with the Clarkson program since its rebirth at the Division I level.

“They’re both special, but they’re definitely different,” Desrosiers said of reaching a Frozen Four both as a player and later as a coach. “This time, it’s more like you’re just so proud of the kids and what they’ve accomplished and, as a player, you’re just so happy to be a part of it.”

Desrosiers, who served as an assistant coach with the Golden Knights for five seasons, has shared head coaching duties with her husband Matt Desrosiers since the 2008-09 season.

“Shannon has been there since the get-go,” former Golden Knights defenseman Carlee Eusepi said. “And she and her husband have really been a stabilizing factor and they’ve done a remarkable job. They have worked so hard for the program, and I’m just as excited for them as I am for the kids.”

“When Matt Desrosiers joined the program, he made a huge impact as he had such a vast understanding of the game,” Williams said. “He had a calming effect on the defense and was great with special teams.”

Clarkson’s first women’s hockey team was formed by coach Ron Frazer and competed from 1974 through 1984 at the Division III level.

Then, after a nearly 20-year absence at the school, the return of women’s hockey, this time as a Division I program, was ushered in by Seeley. As the first head coach, he would guide the team for five seasons, including a 16-12-3 record in its first campaign in 2003-04, which included freshman goalie Kira Hurley, who would become the program’s first All-American.

“Rich did a lot for the program at the beginning because he set the tone in making this one of the hardest-working programs around,” Eusepi said of Seeley, who is now the head coach of Quinnipiac’s women’s team. “He pushed those kids to the limit and that really paid off in growth of the program.”

“The most important thing we tried to do was to work hard,” Williams recalled. “Conditioning was a major focus ... We always used to say ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ It was exciting to see the talent the coaches recruited over the years and how well they adapted to the disciplined and hard-working culture.”

In 11 seasons, the Clarkson program has experienced only two losing campaigns and has compiled a 225-134-45 record, including winning its first ECAC Hockey regular-season title this year.

In making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2010, the Golden Knights were an at-large selection and went on to lose to national power Minnesota, 3-2 in overtime, in a national quarterfinal.

“That was a pretty big moment in our careers,” Eusepi said. “We lost to Cornell in overtime in the championship game and that was a heartbreaker. And then in the tournament we came back to tie it against Minnesota and then lost in overtime. Those were like the greatest moments for us and, at the same time, the most upsetting and the most heartbreaking.”

Last year, Clarkson returned to the tournament and was beaten by eventual national runner-up Boston University, 5-3, in Boston.

“I don’t think I really realized how big it was until we made it to the (NCAA) tournament last year,” current senior goaltender Erica Howe said. “I kind of got a better understanding then of what it was all about. This year, making it to the Frozen Four, we’ve been working for this for four years, so it’s that much more special and you realize how hard you have to work to make it that far.”

After they were stunned by Cornell, 1-0 in overtime in the ECAC Hockey tournament championship game on March 9, the Golden Knights hosted an NCAA tournament game for the first time and made the most of it with the triumph over Boston College on Saturday.

“Speaking for the senior class, every year we improve and take one step further,” senior forward Vanessa Gagnon said. “ ... It’s going to be fun. It takes a couple years of preparation, especially with a young program like this. Our class has faced a lot of challenges throughout the years and now we feel we’re confident and ready for this.”

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