Big Red Regrets

With The Help Of Their Coaches, Cornell Players Manager To Put Disappointment Behind Them As They Look Forward To Next Season
Joe Paisley

Tears, disappointment and frustration soon gave way to acceptance, resignation and a healthy perspective during a worldwide pandemic.

Cornell players and fans, like so many other college ice hockey programs, can still ruminate about what might have been following the sudden end of two promising campaigns.
The top-ranked men's and women's teams were both preparing for their next opponent when the NCAA announced that it was canceling the rest of the postseason in an attempt to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead of having their playoff fate decided on the ice, the top women's seed saw its season end a couple days before a mid-March NCAA quarterfinal home game.  

The suddenness of the end stung senior forward Paige Lewis of New Canaan, Conn.
There would be no final effort to pull out a win, no satisfaction in knowing you gave it your all and fell short.

"We were preparing all year for this one moment and for it to be taken away hurt a lot more than losing in the end," Lewis recalled. "Everyone was just sitting in a circle [in the locker room]. We knew our time together was over."

"The girls were coming in and I could see there were tears so I knew they'd heard," said women's head coach Doug Derraugh. "I knew they wouldn't hear much of what I had to say because they were so distraught. I tried to make them understand and be proud of all they had accomplished."

"Sports mirrors life and there will be a lot of things that will be more dramatic and important that you will have to handle," Derraugh recalled from that meeting. "It hurts right now, but this is a small blip compared to the rest of the challenges you will face in your life."

After the hurt faded, Lewis and the other players understand the bigger picture.

"We have all realized that this pandemic is a lot bigger than ourselves and the team," Lewis said. "I do respect the decision the NCAA made. It was about protecting our families and individuals that we love."

The Cornell men's season just before the ECAC playoffs.

"Coach [Mike Schafer] told us we had to fight through this because worse things have happened," said rising senior forward Cam Donaldson of Pittsboro, N.C. "That got our spirits up. We were happy to still have 27 brothers around us. We played a scrimmage and we all had a good time playing the game we love."

Not being around his teammates was tough for Donaldson, who was used to taking spring classes. Suddenly he found himself spending more time than usual in his small hometown (pop. 4,300).

Rising senior defenseman Alex Green of Chicago misses campus life, too, and like Donaldson, appreciates the opportunity to spend time with family.

"This is like the first time I've been home this early since I was a junior in high school," said Green, who was named the ECAC's top defensive defenseman. "I am making up for a lot of lost time."

The Cornell men and women can take pride in their historic seasons. Both programs were ranked No. 1 in the final national polls, a first for both squads. There were no national polls when the men won the 1967 and 1970 NCAA titles.

The Big Red men (23-2-4, .862-win percentage) was the nation's best since Maine (.956) won the 1993 NCAA championship. The team's 18-2-2 ECAC record gave it 38 points, matching the program's best total since 2005.

The men were second in Div. I with a 1.55 goals-against average while allowing 24 even-strength goals in 29 games. The offense scored 104 goals (3.59 per game), a program best since the 2002-03 season. Schafer was named ECAC Coach of the Year for a record fifth time.

"One of the things we instill within our program is to not waste time and energy on things you can't control - and the sudden end to the year is one of those things," Schafer said. "It's disappointing to not have a crack at the postseason, but we're still very thankful for the season that we did have and appreciate being voted No. 1."

The men were set to qualify for an NCAA tournament berth for a fourth-straight year, a testament to the program's senior leadership.

The Cornell women enjoyed their share of firsts by being the top NCAA tournament seed, going undefeated in league regular-season play while claiming the ECAC (19-0-3) and Ivy League (10-0-0) championships.

The 28-2-3 win percentage (.894) led women's Div. I, also a program first. The Big Red were ranked first in the nation in team defense by surrendering less than one goal per game - including a program-low 22 even-strength goals in 33 games.

That defense was anchored by rising senior goalie Lindsay Browning, the first Cornell women's goalie to be named as a CCM/American Hockey Coaches Association All-American (second team). The Penfield, N.Y. native led the nation in three major stats (0.91 GAA, .894 winning percentage and 12 shutouts).

It was easy to see why both teams had high hopes. If both programs had won their respective Frozen Fours - both teams had plenty of tough games left - it would have been the first time since 2006 when Wisconsin won both NCAA Div. I championships.

"It's a tough break for Cornell hockey overall," Derraugh said. "This was one of our best opportunities yet to do something special for both programs. But there are bigger things in life right now."

The players and coaches have put aside ruminating on what might have been to being proactive about next season.

"Definitely, we kind of started talking about it as a team after we regrouped," Green said. "Unfinished business is a very accurate way to put it."

"Our freshman year [two years ago], we lost to Colgate in the ECAC semifinals and it ended rather abruptly," Browning said. "That translated last year into that hunger. We have all been working out, starting our offseason training already. I want to do it for the [five] seniors who didn't get that chance this year."

Joe Paisley is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colo.




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