WORCESTER, Mass. — The Holy Cross women’s ice hockey team averaged nearly 20 victories over the last 10 seasons while hanging six conference championship banners at its home rink, the Hart Center.
The senior tri-captains, Tori Messina, Julie Matthias and Sam Girard, helped the team win one of those banners, and the Crusaders posted a 62-17-3 record in their first three seasons.
“We were so used to winning,” Messina, a defender, said.
But this season, the team’s first in Division I, Holy Cross has had to get used to losing.
It is 1-28-3 entering its final game on Friday night, at home against Providence. The other 34 Division I teams have each won at least two games.
The Crusaders have been shut out in 11 games and been held to one goal in 14 others. They failed to score on their first 43 power-play opportunities after scoring at a 30 percent clip last season.
“No team I’ve had has ever faced more challenges,” said Peter Van Buskirk, who has coached the program for 19 of its 20 years, taking over in its second season. Before that, he coached the Holy Cross men’s team for 10 seasons between 1979 and 1997, reaching the postseason eight times.
Athletic Director Nate Pine said it had always bothered him that women’s ice hockey was the only sport of 27 at Holy Cross that was not playing in Division I. And when Holy Cross’s former league, the New England Hockey Conference, decided it wanted only Division III institutions as members, the college began looking for a new hockey home.
Pine, who left Holy Cross in January to become the athletic director at Air Force, approached the Hockey East commissioner, Joe Bertagna, whose league had an uneven number of women’s teams, nine, including top programs like Northeastern, Boston College and Boston University.
Holy Cross, with fewer than 3,000 students, committed to providing additional financial support for the program, and in May 2017 Hockey East announced that the Crusaders would join the league for the 2018-19 season.
“As we continue to make investments over the next four, five years, we expect to be where we want to be,” Pine said in his final week at Holy Cross. “We’re not in this to be an also-ran.”
The news that Holy Cross would join Hockey East came just two months after North Dakota announced it was dropping its women’s program, along with two other sports, for budgetary reasons. Before Holy Cross, the last new women’s program in Division I was Merrimack College’s, which joined Hockey East for the 2015-16 season.
Last September, L.I.U. Brooklyn said it would have a Division I team beginning in 2019-20, which would bring the number of those programs to 36 nationally. Northern Michigan is also exploring adding a women’s team. (There are 60 Division I men’s hockey teams.)
It is not unusual for a college team to struggle after moving up a division. Bertagna said he thought it was harder for a program to move up a level than to start a team from scratch. Compounding the difficulty for Holy Cross, it began this season with only one class that had been recruited for Division I competition.
Not only were returning Holy Cross players accustomed to winning, but so were many of the incoming freshmen. Forward Carlie Magier won state championships for Belle Tire Hockey Club in Detroit, and goalie Jada Brenon won New York State titles while playing for the Nichols School in Buffalo.
“This is a new challenge,” said Magier, who is tied for second on the team with 11 points. “I was looking forward to it. We expected to have bumps in the road.”
One of those bumps came against Connecticut on Oct. 13, when some teammates expressed frustration with one another on the bench as an early lead devolved into a 7-2 loss. It was addressed immediately after the game, and now, Brenon said, “This team gets together better than any team I’ve been on.”
Surprisingly, Holy Cross’s lone victory came Nov. 30 at home against Northeastern, which was ranked No. 5 at the time and is currently No. 3. Down by two goals in the first period, the Crusaders rallied for a 5-3 victory.
Matthias called it “the most fun hockey game I’ve ever played in.” She added, “We finally got what we’d been working for.”
Messina said she was crying on the bench as the game wound down. “I don’t think I breathed the last 10 minutes,” she said, laughing.
Before practice on Jan. 15, Van Buskirk, 76, told his team he would retire after the season. He said he began thinking about retirement last year as he was preparing for his second hip replacement, but he relished the challenge of competing in Hockey East.
“Our record this year doesn’t indicate how successful this journey has been for me and for the team,” he said. “They’ve been very good about focusing on the process, not the outcomes.”
Replacing him will be the associate head coach, Katie Lachapelle, who was hired in July 2017 after nine years as an assistant at Boston University. She has also coached national select teams for U.S.A. Hockey.
“She’s brought a lot of Division I experience, and her exposure to U.S.A. Hockey and anything new coming up has been a big advantage for us,” Van Buskirk said.
The junior forward Rachel Moore, the team’s leading scorer with 14 points, transferred to Holy Cross from Boston College.
Early in the season, she said, the team played “timid, a little cautious, without a lot of confidence.” Now, she added, “we know we can stay with these teams.”
Maine Coach Richard Reichenbach said Holy Cross’s victory over Northeastern got his attention. “You can’t do that on luck,” he said.
But, Messina said, the frustration of this season remains. “I think we all thought we’d pick up another win or two this semester,” she added.
In their first games back from semester break, the Crusaders lost a home-and-home series to Connecticut, 4-3 and 6-3, in which they led twice in the first game and were tied in the second period in the second.
The next Saturday, at home against Maine, they scored twice in the third period for a 2-1 lead, only to see Maine tie the score with an extra attacker with less than a second left. Holy Cross had to settle for an overtime tie.
What this season isn’t providing in victories, it is providing in perspective, as well as an appreciation for the course the team is charting for the future.
“I look at hockey so much different now,” Girard, one of the senior captains, said. “I enjoy the competition every time we play. I wouldn’t trade this for the world.”
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