WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Williams women's hockey team has done what no other team before it could.
There have been teams that have hosted playoff games and gone to the conference final.
"It's incredible. We've never won a championship ever, first time," first-year defenseman Hanna Beattie said. "We're so happy, did it for our seniors. Ready to take it to NCAAs."
It's the program's 20th varsity season and one Eph fans won't soon forget.
The team did everything it could to savor the moment, remaining on the ice to celebrate with friends and family. Photos were taken, hugs were given and even a modified celebratory lap with a Canadian flag for those who hail from the Great White North.
"It's amazing," said first year Chelsey Stevenson when she finally left the ice surface. "The first time in the history of the school. There's no feeling like making history."
It was the first time any player on the team had reached the conference final. Coach Meghan Gillis won the title as a freshman with Bowdoin in 2004. One of her teammates was Marissa O'Neil, who was a junior at the time and is the current Bowdoin bench boss. O'Neil also spent the 2009-10 season as the Williams coach.
It's Gillis' first title as a coach.
"I'm just really happy for the team," said Gillis, the recently named NESCAC Coach of the Year. "They played hard today and capitalized on their chances. Definitely well-deserved."
There were nerves beforehand, which was to be expected. They didn't last long on the Williams bench.
Beattie, known for a booming shot from the blue line, took perhaps her softest shot of the season. The NESCAC Rookie of the Year dumped the puck in from the neutral zone. It just happened to be on net, and clearly the nerves got the best of Bowdoin goalie Lan Crofton because the puck slipped right through the five-hole just 36 seconds into the game. The fastest goal to begin a NESCAC tournament game is 15 seconds.
Crofton was pulled for Beth Findley in the final two periods.
"I was kind of impressed with myself that I got it on net," Beattie said. "Then, just, the ref's hand was out, and I'll take it."
From there, it was all about crashing the net for Williams. Each of the final three goals came within just a few feet of the crease.
Stevenson pounced on a rebound to the right of the Bowdoin goal later in the first period for a 2-0 lead, and Gabrielle Vukasin made it 3-0 with 59 seconds gone in the second period with another rebound goal.
Bowdoin's Ariana Bourque answered Vukasin's tally 33 seconds later. Cristina Bravi reinstated the three-goal lead -- and did away with the dreaded two-goal cushion -- with 2:55 to play in the middle period as she was camped at the back door. The goal gave the NESCAC Player of the Year an even 40 points on the season, adding to her conference-leading total.
"Of course when everyone thinks about hockey, they think about the beautiful goals and the top-corner snipes, but those happen probably about one percent of the time," Stevenson said. "There's nothing like crashing the crease because every goal counts. It doesn't matter how dirty it is, and I would say that most of them are pretty nasty."
The Ephs refrained from getting greedy in the third, playing the dump-and-chase game for much of it, content to make the Polar Bears skate 200 feet to score. They did sustain offensive zone pressure for a full two minutes late in the third to make Bowdoin's comeback chances significantly bleaker.
What finished Bowdoin off was a combination of Williams goalie Charlie Billadeau and the Eph defense. The Polar Bears frantically tried to push in a goal in the final four minutes, pulling their goalie with three minutes to play. Neither the defense, nor Billadeau cracked. Billadeau finished with 28 saves.
"We know Bowdoin very well. And we know that they've got some strong forwards. You give them a little bit of room and they'll definitely take it," Bravi said. "We knew that that would be what was going to win us the third period of the hockey game was just trying to play really good defense first, and then, if the opportunities come, go for it."
The end result was a pipe dream when practice started last fall. Now the Ephs will have a banner hanging in the rink.
"Our goal was to host quarterfinals, so be top four," Beattie said. "That was, I think, a realistic goal for us. But this, I don't think we ever could have imagined this."
To reach Josh Colligan:
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