Blue White Illustrated

November 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 51 of 67

5 2 N O V E M B E R 2 0 2 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M E D I T O R I A L MATT HERB W ith its empty facilities, its test- and-trace protocols, its cancel- lations and postponements, the 2020-21 athletic year was one that a lot of college teams would prefer to write off as a dismal aberration. The Penn State women's ice hockey team had to find a way to cope with the same hardships that other teams across the country were dealing with. But the Nittany Lions definitely do not want their 2021 season to go down as an aber- ration. They'd be quite happy if last sea- son's on-ice results turn out to be a har- binger of things to come for the program. That's because Penn State enjoyed a breakthrough year, going 16-3-2 and winning the program's first conference championship. Playing their fourth sea- son under coach Jeff Kampersal, who had guided Princeton to two Ivy League titles and a pair of NCAA Tournament appear- ances before taking over Penn State's program in 2017, the Nittany Lions won College Hockey America's regular-sea- son crown. Prior to last season, PSU had never finished higher than third in the league standings. Among the keys to Penn State's turnaround were big performances by freshmen Kiara Zanon and Josie Bothun. Zanon, a forward from Fairport, N.Y., was named CHA Player of the Year after totaling a league-leading 30 points on 10 goals and 20 assists. Meanwhile, Bothun, a goalie from Wyoming, Minn., compiled a CHA-best 1.44 goals-against average and was named the conference's Goal- tender of the Year. The Nittany Lions, who scored a league-leading 72 goals during the ab- breviated, conference-only season, looked to be in strong contention for their first NCAA Tournament appear- ance, but they weren't able to fight their way back from a three-goal deficit against Syracuse and saw their season end with a 3-2 loss to the Orange in the CHA Tournament semifinals. Penn State went into the 2021-22 cam- paign as the league's preseason favorite, but Kampersal wanted to challenge his squad in the nonconference season, and the results reflected the ambitious nature of the team's early- season slate. Heading into a two-game series at Brown Oct. 23-24, the Nittany Lions were 2-3-1, including a pair of one-goal losses to seventh-ranked Bos- ton College. With Penn State looking to build on last season's successes, this was going to be a big year no matter what. But there are a couple of additional factors in play that add to the intrigue. The first is that Penn State will play host in March to the Frozen Four. The NCAA's decision to bring its main event to Pegula Ice Arena was made long before the Nittany Lions emerged as dark horse contenders to make the field themselves, but it was a show of confidence by the sport's leaders that PSU is the kind of place where women's college hockey can thrive. The other bit of intrigue surrounding Penn State involves its conference af- filiation. Since the program's inception, it has been a member of College Hockey America. The league has been engaged in a constant battle for respect within the women's college hockey commu- nity, and it suffered a major blow in May when one of its top schools, Robert Morris, announced that it was disband- ing both its men's and women's hockey programs. The Colonial women were coming off a CHA Tournament cham- pionship and an appearance at NCAAs, but that wasn't enough to ensure the program's continuation. Where that leaves the conference — and Penn State — is unclear. Supporters of the Robert Morris hockey programs have launched a fundraising campaign and have been given until December by the university's administration to raise $1.4 million in cash and an equal amount in pledged donations to bring the teams back. But there are no assurances that the effort will succeed. And without the Colo- nials, College Hockey America has only five teams, one fewer than the NCAA requires for a league champion to receive an automatic bid to the eight-team national tournament. In August, Penn State athletics direc- tor Sandy Barbour said that while she's confident that College Hockey America can continue to provide a viable path to the NCAA Tournament, her department is going to "make sure that we understand what the landscape looks like and what our options might be." "We're constantly doing that every- where in everything," she added. "And so we'll always be analyzing what's best for that particular program. And obvi- ously, we've got men's volleyball, our two fencing programs and women's hockey that are not in the Big Ten. So those are constant conversations." Barbour said she wasn't certain whether the erosion of College Hockey America was "cause for concern or [an] opportunity." But no matter what its conference affiliation may be in the years to come, she sounded confident that Penn State's women's ice hockey program is headed in the right direction coming off of its 2020-21 season. "I'm really proud of Coach Kampersal and the young women in that program and the year that they had, obviously a breakthrough year for them," she said. "We expect that moving forward." ■ Head coach Jeff Kampersal guided the Nittany Lions to a 16-3-2 record and the College Hockey America regular-season championship a year ago. PHOTO COURTESY PENN STATE ATHLETICS Women's Ice Hockey Team Aims To Build On Momentum VARSITY VIEWS

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