WILLIAMSTOWN -- Before Meghan Gillis arrived in Williamstown, the Williams women’s hockey team was in desperate need of stability.
It had just finished its third straight season with a different coach, beginning with Shannon Bryant’s final season and ending with Williams alumna Joey Lye’s only year at the helm, which was on an interim base. Marissa O’Neil, for whom Lye was an assistant, was sandwiched in the middle.
The program struggled to find unity and a confidence to play effectively in a revolving door of systems.
That’s in the past. What’s here now is Gillis in her third season, and she has the Ephs sitting in third place in the NESCAC.
"Anytime you have, I think it was three or four different coaches that they had had ... it takes time to get everyone on the same page and make sure that everyone’s aligned with the same team goals," Gillis said prior to Friday’s game at Middlebury. "But now, everyone just has a great team-first attitude, and I think, that’s what makes the difference in these tight games that we’ve had as of late."
Gillis’ willingness to stay in Williamstown has brought consistency to the recruiting process, which for a couple years was in flux. Senior Cristina Bravi has been through it all.
Her first year was Lye’s only season as head coach. That means she was recruited by O’Neil, played for Lye and has played for Gillis ever since.
"I’ve been lucky enough, I guess, to see the change from my freshman year to my sophomore year," Bravi said before boarding the bus for Middlebury. "That was pretty brutal, but I think, every year we just look better than we did the year before."
The senior forward has seen firsthand how Gillis has impacted the program in her point totals. Before Friday’s game at Middlebury, Bravi was leading the team with 17 goals and 29 points. It’s the most points in a season by an Eph since the 2006-07 season when Ashley Wood scored 31. Bravi had 26 as a sophomore.
It’s more than Bravi that’s benefiting in the points department. The team is on pace to score the most points since the 06-07 season, when it scored 190. The Ephs have 183 so far. They’ve scored at least four goals on 10 of 21 occasions this season.
"I think, the compete level at practice has definitely increased," junior Andree Heller said. "We’re starting to keep stats [in practice] and be really honest about how we’re performing in practice, and that, obviously, translates into the games. I just think holding each other more accountable on a daily basis is leading to more success on the ice."
For as much as the offense has been clicking along, the goaltending has also been solid -- which, the way it’s been divided lately, could have taken a turn for the worse.
Each of the three goalies has had her turn as the starter, but it’s now a game-by-game approach for Gillis. She said they’ve been keeping stats during practice to help determine who will be between the pipes the next game. A strong start and win in any one game doesn’t guarantee you the job the next time out.
Junior Charlie Billadeau’s start on Friday was the first time since freshman Margaret Draper started against Bowdoin on Jan. 31 that an Eph goalie made back-to-back starts.
"I think it helps me when I have someone to compete against because it makes me want to play better," Billadeau said early Friday. "Whoever is the best is the one that should be playing between the pipes because we want the best for our team, and I hope that’s the mentality that both of us share.
"I know that it’s the ideal goalie position to play all of the games, but when I’m not having a great week or when I’m just off, it’s always better to have the better goalie in."
Sitting in third place in the conference and 11-8-2 overall hasn’t come without its disappointments. The key is what qualifies for a disappointment these days. It’s changed quite a bit in the last four seasons.
Last weekend’s 2-2 tie with perennial NESCAC power Amherst, which came a day after a 6-2 defeat, would have been a huge victory for the Ephs not so long ago. Now, it’s a missed opportunity.
The tie does seem to have validated the Ephs’ place in the standings. Until playing Amherst, all their games had come against teams that are now no better than .500.
"I think it was a huge confidence boost in that we know it’s not we’re getting lucky. I think, just the way we played that whole game, we knew that we could play with them and we could actually be better than them," Bravi said. "It would have been great to win; I think people were pretty disappointed by the outcome, but, I think, it showed us that we deserved to be second [in the standings], not just because we had only played the lower-end teams at the beginning. So, I think, people just knew that we were there for a reason."
It also gave the Ephs a confidence boost, almost validating their success to themselves, which could prove to be key as they take on the No. 2-ranked team in the country for the second of back-to-back games tonight. The Ephs have heard the rumblings their tie with Amherst has created and also what’s coming out of Middlebury.
"I’ve heard rumors that they’re a little bit nervous to play us because we definitely have made some noise coming from seventh place last year in the NESCAC to going to second place this year," Billadeau said. "These are probably the most talented players in the NESCAC, and I know they got a very solid goalie and very good coaching, so I expect nothing but a very tough game for us. But, I think, if we play like we did in the first period against Amherst, we will definitely pull out a win."
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