Published March 15, 2017
Updated March 17, 2017
From “Rudy” to the “Mighty Ducks” to “Rocky,” everyone loves seeing an underdog win the gold. And sports fans and students of sports drama can add the unlikely success of the UB Women’s Club Ice Hockey team to the ranks of those athletes starring in their own Cinderella stories.
Fresh from an undefeated season that almost never got off the ground, the Women’s Club Ice Hockey team is celebrating winning the College Hockey East championship, having beat larger, more bruising and more experienced teams.
The team’s next challenge: returning to the American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament this week in Columbus, Ohio, where it plays Minot State University from North Dakota at 4 p.m. Thursday. The team is trying to do what no UB women’s club hockey team has ever done: win a national championship.
The team already has achieved more than expected. Before the season, many players worried about not having a team at all.
“At the beginning of this season we were really worried about numbers. The league commissioner was talking about us not having a team because he was worried about us being able to compete,” says junior Theresa Meosky, the team’s only goalie and an undergraduate research assistant in the Department of Behavioral Medicine.
“Our other goalie graduated and we never found a replacement. As a result, we’ve had to come together as a team and sometimes play positions we normally don’t.”
Coming together meant embodying the motto “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Meosky says. Since there are only 11 women on the team — at least six fewer than their opponents — it also means taking on responsibility and standing up for their team in ways familiar to those facing stiff odds. In the case of UB’s Women’s Club Ice Hockey Team, these obstacles may have contributed to its success, according to Meosky.
“Because we don’t have as many substitutes as other teams, we really have to hold our own in a game,” she says. “It speaks volumes about these girls’ commitment because if we had allowed ourselves to give up instead of working our butts off as we have, we wouldn’t have been able to pull this off at all.”
The small squad also tests the physical stamina of each player, especially when it comes to the very real physical hurdles of playing ice hockey — being slammed into the boards, for instance.
“Our endurance is important because we play a lot of bigger girls,” Meosky explains. “We played one defenseman who was over 6 feet tall. A lot of teams use their size against us, but our girls are out there getting thrown into the boards and getting right back up.”
The underdog role also applies to a university teeming with well-respected athletes and well-endowed sports programs. The Women’s Club Ice Hockey team is a club team, which means life is very different from inter-collegiate teams with scholarship athletes and staff paid to take care of the arrangements and responsibilities needed to compete.
“We have to do everything ourselves since it’s a club team, so we have to practice, be board members, play in games and plan out things like transportation and accommodations,” Meosky says.
Until recently, the ice hockey team was in Division I, but its short bench placed it in Division II this year. The team’s skill level has led to its domination of this new division. Meosky and her teammates readily acknowledge their short list of players pushes them to practice harder and smarter.
So being a part of a small team also has its perks. Communication and team dynamics are easier to develop, often leading to successful coordination on the ice, according to the team’s players.
“Going into the season knowing we had such a small team really brought all of us together,” says team captain Courtney Miller. “Not being sure we would even be allowed to play was rough. So hearing that we would be able to was exciting because it meant we would be able to play the game we love.”
The love of the game has motivated players on this team to make sacrifices they normally wouldn’t.
“One of our defensemen got sick a few days before playoffs, and we didn’t know how we would manage,” Miller remembers. “I usually play forward, but I played defense that game so that our defense didn’t suffer.”
And the underdog role, which the players embrace, has led to bonds and an identity larger, more mainstream teams might miss.
“We are passionate and talented players who have a lot of experience and support,” Meosky says. “Parents who live in other states will come just to cheer us on at games. We also have great leadership — our captain is phenomenal and is really good at getting the team focused.”
Nevertheless, the biggest challenge lies in Columbus. Added pressure comes from the fact that this team has tasted defeat at national championships in the past.
“My freshman year we went to nationals but didn’t do very well because of doubts,” Meosky recalls. “Last year, the same thing happened because we went in with high expectations, but we lacked practice and strategy, and didn’t know what to expect. This year, we’re much more prepared and excited to perform our best.”
Doing well also would earn the team the attention and respect normally reserved for other teams, including their colleagues, the UB Men’s Club Ice Hockey team.
“Even though we’ve been very successful, SA has kind of left us by the wayside,” Meosky says, noting her team has not received nearly as much coverage as less successful teams at UB.
“Our friends and families give us immense support,” she says, “and that helps a lot.”
Every player understands that the only way to earn that trophy is through teamwork.
“We look out for each other,” Meosky says. “We support each other, and we’re going to Columbus with the strength of each other.”