First-year women’s ice hockey interim head coach Hilary Witt is one of eight finalists for 2002-2003 American Hockey Coaches Association Women’s Ice Hockey Coach of the Year, marking the first time in Yale women’s hockey history a coach has received this honor.

Witt also was named 2002-2003 Eastern College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year March 14 at the ECAC J.P. Morgan Chase Championship banquet in Providence, R.I.

The AHCA winner will be announced on April 26 in Naples, Fla., at the AHCA annual banquet.

“[Witt] definitely deserves the award,” Kaitlin Porcaro ’03 said. “She is one of the reasons we have done so well.”

Witt, who served as assistant coach last season, took over the program this fall and led a much-improved Yale squad to a 5-11-0 conference record, 9-20-2 overall, and the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament.

Witt could not be reached for comment Monday.

A 2001 Northeastern graduate, Witt replaced John Marchetti, who finished with a 30-104-11 record over five years at Yale.

“Hilary made us believe we could do anything,” Wallis Finger ’04 said. “Some of our results showed that we could.”

Those results were arguably because of Witt and her stubborn adherence to team defense.

The team defense system, where the entire team works as a single defensive unit, made an impact just three games into the season when Yale defeated Cornell, 3-1. It was the Elis’ first Ivy League win in two years and their first victory over the Big Red in over a decade. Yale picked up another Ivy League win later in the season when it dropped then-nationally ranked No. 8 Princeton, 3-1.

“Defense was obviously part of our game last year,” Nicole Symington ’05 said. “But this year, it had become a focal point.”

But team defense is just one outgrowth of Witt’s season-long dedication to team unity, which has affected the lives of her players both on and off the ice.

“We have so much team chemistry — the most in the four years I have been here,” Porcaro said. “That includes great coaching chemistry. Everyone worked so well together.”

Aside from honoring Witt, the award also acknowledges the development of the Yale women’s hockey program as a whole.

“It’s a general recognition that this program has turned the corner,” assistant coach Harry Rosenholtz said. “It is a tremendous compliment to her. She strives to be excellent and is excellent in everything she does. Her peers have recognized that she is bringing a program to the heights of women’s hockey.”