SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — The women’s hockey team wrapped up its whirlwind of a season March 12 in a dramatic overtime loss to No. 5 Harvard.

But for the Elis, the final horn of the 2-1 defeat — suffered at Union College’s Messa Rink in the ECAC semifinals — was less of a conclusion than the resounding signal of a new era of Yale women’s hockey. In giving first-seeded Harvard a hard-fought battle, Yale proved that it has finally managed the transformation from a perennial league laughingstock into a nationally competitive team.

“Looking back on my career, I am very satisfied with what I have accomplished here at Yale,” captain Erin Duggan ’05 said. “And I am leaving with no regrets, only the memories of taking the joke team of the league to one our peers now respect and even fear as opponents.”

At this point in 2001, the Elis were reflecting on a 3-23-2 final record. For four years, the Bulldogs had been racking up defeats and consistently lowering the bar of program expectations. The record books were constantly being rewritten, but only to accommodate dismal marks such as the most losses in a season and the largest margin of defeat. Yale’s last, and only, winning seasons had been the 1984-85 and 1985-86 campaigns. Since then, the Bulldogs had gone through four coaches and 253 losses, with a winning percentage of less than 25 percent.

Then came coach Hilary Witt, an assistant in 2001-02 before she made the transition to head coach the following year, and a stellar recruiting class which included Duggan and forwards Nicole Symington ’05 and Ali Turney ’05. An immediate standout, Duggan imprinted her name in the Yale record books during her four years as a Bulldog — an impressive feat for a defender. She finished her career in second for assists, third in total points amassed and seventh in goals scored, while claiming a second-team all-Ivy award and a first-team ECAC award for her achievements this season.

“Our seniors are going to be sorely missed,” forward Christina Sharun ’07 said. “They are one of the major reasons why this program is where it is. If they hadn’t trusted … the coaching staff four years ago, and thought that the program had a legitimate chance of improving, we would still be the bottom dwellers of the league today.”

The progress was slow. For two years, Yale could not find a way to break out of its slump, managing only nine wins each season. The Bulldogs’ breakout finally came in 2003-04. With an enormously talented class of eight freshmen and backed by record-breaking, all-Ivy goaltender Sarah Love ’06, the Elis finished with a program-best 12 victories.

At the start of this season, the Elis knew the previous year had only been a beginning. Talk of national success and broken records and whispers of a legitimate chance at a championship surfaced in the locker room. Outstanding recruiting success, which included eventual ECAC All-Rookie Team defender Helen Resor ’08, helped bolster expectations.

“With the type of people our coaching staff, especially [assistant coach] Harry Rosenholtz, has been recruiting it was definitely imaginable that we would become a very good team,” Love said. “The goal set by the coaches and the program is to win a national championship and the success we had this year brings us one step closer to that.”

Finally, all of the Elis’ work began to pay off. In November, with the season just getting underway, Yale downed three nationally-ranked opponents, including a 3-2 victory over arch-rival Harvard, a feat which had not been accomplished in 20 years. In December, the Bulldogs broke into the national rankings for the first time in Yale history. After that, program records fell like dominoes as the Elis sailed through the first half of the season, leaving disbelieving national powerhouses and league rivals straggling in their wake.

“The first half of the season our team did amazing, surpassing the expectations I had for the team,” Duggan said. “We played amazing, beating three ranked teams in a short span. It was a great feeling to finally see Yale ranked in the top ten for a couple of weeks.”

The second half of the season saw the Bulldogs struggling to maintain the high level of success they had achieved during the campaign’s early months. In January, the Elis went a disappointing 1-6-1. Nevertheless, the team was able to fight through its failures and reemerge in late February as a dominant force, winning its ECAC quarterfinal matchups against Princeton, and appearing in the semifinals for yet another program first.

When the Bulldogs took the ice against Harvard two Saturdays ago, the Elis truly proved they were no longer the joke team they were just four years ago. The Cantabs took the lead halfway through the third period off a goal from Sarah Vaillancourt, the ECAC Rookie of the Year, but the Elis refused to surrender. With just 14.2 seconds left in regulation play, Resor and Duggan found forward Jenna Spring ’07, who slid the puck by Cantab goaltender Ali Boe to send the game into overtime.

That one goal was enough to help the Elis fully recognize the momentous strides the program has made in recent years.

“It was an amazing feeling to be sitting in that locker room [before overtime] knowing we had a great opportunity in front of us, that everything I have worked so hard for in the past four years is coming into place,” Duggan said.

The Elis kept the Crimson at bay for the first 12 minutes of the sudden-death overtime, but were unable to stop Vaillancourt’s power play goal at 12:06 into the period that gave Harvard the win. Despite the loss, the Elis were satisfied with their play.

“We played a tremendous game against Harvard,” Love said. “We never let up or panicked even after they scored their first goal. When we scored to tie the game up, the feeling was amazing. We walked away from the game proud of what we had accomplished that game and the whole year.”

The Bulldogs are anticipating a continuation of and an improvement upon these successes next season. With a recruiting class of seven, the Elis will fill out their small roster, and attempt to fill the skates left by Duggan, Symington and Turney.

“We are happy with how the season went, but hungry to continue where we left off last year and continue to surpass people’s expectations,” Sharun said. “If we train hard this spring and summer, we will be prepared to do that when we return next fall.”

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