Ivy League and ECAC titles used to seem miles away, but they are suddenly tangible goals for Yale women’s hockey after last season’s unprecedented success. After two strong performances this weekend in scrimmages against Princeton and McGill, goalie Sarah Love ’06 and the surging Bulldogs will head into the regular season with higher expectations than ever before.

Rebounding from countless abysmal seasons, the women’s hockey team set several Yale season records last winter: most wins (16), most conference wins (12), highest conference finish (fourth), and the longest winning streak in the program’s history, six games. Love led the way, setting her own record with the most victories (14) for a Yale women’s goalie in a season. Now, with a strong corps of freshmen in the mix, Love and other veterans will be expected to speed the transition and build upon last year’s success.

On Saturday, the Elis tied the Tigers in New Jersey, 2-2. Princeton led 1-0 and 2-1, but goals from forwards Sheila Zingler ’07 and Jenna Spring ’07 evened the score. Backup Shivon Zilis ’08 got to start in goal.

Kelsey Johnson ’07 said the team responded well, even though the game was a scrimmage.

“We came back, which was something we were really excited to see,” Johnson said. “It was exciting to see that the team could come together and score when we really needed to.”

The next afternoon, Love took the ice and showed why US College Hockey Online placed her on its preseason national first-team as the best netminder in the nation. She made several saves while sprawled across the crease, stopping all 18 shots she faced en route to a 1-0 victory over the Martlets.

Deena Caplette ’06 scored the game’s only goal with 12 minutes left in the second period. With McGill goalie Kalie Townsend on her knees to the left of the goalmouth, Caplette shoveled the puck across the open crease and off a Martlet defender’s stick into the deserted goal.

This weekend’s games mark the start of a critical season for the Yale program, and forward Christina Sharun ’07 said it brings new expectations.

“The expectations have definitely been increasing over the past couple of years,” Sharun said. “We have higher expectations for ourselves and this season, and the coaching staff has been impressed with what they’ve seen so far.”

This year the Elis will have the chance to either solidify themselves as a league and national force or regress to past years’ shortcomings. The Bulldogs will have to succeed without the help of several of last year’s stars. Former captain Erin Duggan ’05 graduated last year, and defenseman Helen Resor ’08 is taking the year off to play for the US National Team, which will come to Ingalls Rink November 1 to play the ECACHL all-stars.

Yale head coach Hilary Witt, who was inducted into the Northeastern University Hall of Fame this weekend as the school’s most decorated female hockey player, said the early experience for the freshmen was critical in smoothly filling the void left by the departed leaders.

“It was really important for our young players to get a sense of what it is like to play college hockey, and what it is like to play in a system,” Witt said. “For some of them it is the first time really playing in a system because it’s done a lot more in college than in youth hockey.”

Witt has taken the program a long way since she took the helm in 2001, when she inherited a team that was coming off a 3-23-2 season. But many on the team see last year as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

The veterans, led by Love between the pipes and team captain Lisa Jacque ’06, will work to instill a sense of this season’s importance in the younger players, and last year’s unprecedented landmarks should help. The Elis beat Harvard for the first time in 20 years, beat Princeton to earn the first playoff series win in school history, and finally hung up their skates after an overtime loss to the Crimson, then ranked fourth in the nation, in the ECAC semifinals.

Several freshmen will be thrown into the fire early. Crysti Howser ’09 and Maggie Westfal ’09 will both join the team after the soccer season, and forwards Kristin Stupay ’09 and Sarah Tittman ’09 spent the weekend playing alongside Spring on the second line. Witt said Spring has a lot of responsibility grooming her linemates.

“For Jenna [Spring] we put the line together three days before playing this weekend and she saw they could play right away,” Witt said. “We’re a little younger and a little less experienced than we thought but that means we’ll have the chance to mold them into what we want and need.”

The freshmen will be built into the image that the veterans, including Love, already embody. But the high hopes will change everything, as Witt pointed out.

“It’s a lot easier to stop pucks when there aren’t a lot of expectations,” she said.

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