“We are going to break them down, shift by shift, and demoralize their living soul every time they step on the ice,” she said during her pregame speech. “One – one breath at a time, one timeout at a time, one period at a time, play as a unit of one, one mind, one heart, we leave no doubt, and you will forever have a legacy.”
A few hours later, after Ohio State dominated possession on the way to a 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth that clinched the first national championship in program history, Muzerall looked like a soothsayer.
But her prognosticating abilities go even further back. When speaking in front of a gathering of the entire athletic department earlier in the year, the outspoken head coach told her fellow Buckeyes that her team was going to win the crown for the first time ever. She would go on to echo that statement multiple times during press conferences leading up to the title game, showing no lack of confidence in the team she had assembled.
“We were laughing on the plane, at the beginning of the year, they had Muzz in front of all the athletes and she said, ‘We’re going to win a championship this year,'” said senior Clair DeGeorge, who scored three times in three NCAA tournament games.
“Looking back at that now and realizing we actually made that come true, it’s huge. It’s quite the moment for Ohio State being able to represent them, and to go out there and bring home a national championship is just amazing.”
So what led Muzerall to have such confidence in her team? It was the fact that the Buckeyes were ready, having knocked on the door multiple times over the past few seasons. It was the fact the Buckeyes were loaded, having supplemented what was already a talented roster with a few key transfers – like DeGeorge – over the past few years.
And it was also, well, a little bit of luck.
“We were always knocking on the door of winning a national championship, but we were a few short teammates,” Muzerall said. “I think we did a good job of getting the kids right in our culture but also adding the depth we needed to go over the top and win the whole thing.
“Of course you never really know. I look like a genius now, but you never really know. But I called them out in that meeting because I felt like this was going to be the year they could do it.”
Spurred on by a balanced lineup, strong depth, and a united belief and culture, Ohio State did just that. The Buckeyes beat highly ranked Wisconsin and Minnesota teams to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association conference tournament and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Buckeyes then claimed wins over Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals, Yale in the semifinals and then UMD in the national title game to make program history.
Since then, it’s been a celebration, including a stop at last night’s Blue Jackets game to take a lap with the NCAA championship trophy before the game and also have captain Liz Schepers drop a ceremonial puck. To hear the players tell it, it’s been a bit overwhelming and a bit surreal, but the memories being made will last a lifetime.
“It still feels like a dream, like it didn’t actually come true or didn’t actually happen,” said alternate captain Paetyn Levis. “It’s been awesome. We’ve had great support so far. We can’t thank the city and the Jackets and everyone who has reached out and congratulated us enough because we couldn’t have done it without the institution and all the people that backed us up.
“It still feels like a dream. Everyone is like, ‘How do you feel?’ And I’m like, speechless. ”
The Journey There
Ohio State’s run to the national title wasn’t without some bumps in the road, though. First, in the WCHA tournament, the Buckeyes twice had to come back, first overturning a 1-0 deficit to beat Wisconsin by a 2-1 score and then battling back from a 2-0 hole in the final at Minnesota. There, national player of the year finalist Sophie Jaques scored twice, including the game-winning, power-play goal in overtime.
Then, in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Ohio State needed 77 shots on goal, a rally from an early 1-0 hole and a little luck to beat Quinnipiac by a 4-3 score at the OSU Ice Rink on DeGeorge’s overtime winner .
That sent the program to its third Frozen Four, but the first win at that level wasn’t checked off until the very end as Ohio State inched its way to a 2-1 win over Yale in a national semifinal after giving up the first goal for the fourth straight game.
Then, in the NCAA final against UMD, something weird happened. Ohio State scored first on a goal by Levis, but having come back throughout the tournament, OSU knew it wasn’t over.
The Buckeyes withstood two tying goals from the Bulldogs – after Minnesota-Duluth made it 1-1, DeGeorge scored early in the third only to see UMD respond quickly – before Kenzie Hauswirth put the Buckeyes ahead for good with 6:40 to go when she fired the puck at the net from the left-wing boards and it deflected off the skate of a defender and into the net.
“All game our coach kept saying, ‘Shoot the puck at the net. No shot is a bad shot,’ and I think that’s exactly what I thought at the moment, just fire it at the net,” Hauswirth said. “I got a lucky bounce. There are literally no other words for it, it just worked out, and I’m so grateful for our team and how we battled there was so amazing, just bearing down, not even letting them get the goalie out and chipping pucks out. It was amazing. ”
As Hauswirth said, Ohio State battened down the hatches after her winner, continuing to forecheck and allowing just four shot attempts – and only two on goal – between the goal and the final buzzer.
“It was tough because I felt like we were pretty dominant,” Muzerall said. “(We had) 39 shots to 19, we controlled the neutral zone really well on our backcheck and our offensive push, but you score and they score, and then you score and they score. It was quick, and that could have been demoralizing just because you feel like you have the lead and then you don’t.
“But they found a way to push. When there was that timeout in the last two minutes, I just challenged them – ‘Do you want to be national champions? You are going to have to sell out.'”
Once the final buzzer sounded, the Buckeyes steamed off the bench to celebrate having reached the mountaintop for the first time in team history.
“It’s an amazing moment to be with your teammates and be able to celebrate this moment right now,” DeGeorge said when the team arrived back in Columbus later that evening. “It’s unreal. There’s really no words I can use to describe this feeling. I’m just going to take it at this moment. It really hasn’t set in yet. For me, I’m a fifth-year (senior). I ‘m done now, but I wouldn’t want to go out any other way. ”
A Lasting Legacy
So what goes into a championship team? Certainly there’s talent, and Ohio State has been able to amass a lot of that. A team also has to get some breaks along the way, but there also has to be that little bit extra that separates the contenders from the pretenders.
Considering Ohio State won each of its last five tournament games by one goal, came back in four of them and won two of them in overtime, it’s fair to say the Buckeyes have that.
“I think it was the love and passion we have for each other,” Levis said. “The culture that we lean back on really showed in those games. Once you get into playoff hockey, you get everyone’s best game, so at that point, it’s anyone’s night.
“So I think leaning back on the culture and the foundation we had set at the beginning of the year and our everyday activities that we did and set forth and just doing the little things right really paid off for us in the end. You could see that in the games we didn’t always have a great start, you could tell the character of the team and how far we had come to that point in the season. ”
It probably also helped to have Muzerall’s constant belief in her team that dated back to the beginning of the season. The sixth-year head coach is a unique force, one who took a program that had never won an NCAA tournament game and put it on the map.
Her players, let’s just say, weren’t terribly surprised to hear her confidence throughout the season starting all the way back when she told the entire athletic department that she had a championship squad.
“I think it puts a lot of confidence into us,” Hauswirth said. “She believed in us all year. She pushed us all year, and we knew what we were fighting for and what we were going for. She just gave this confidence to us that we needed in order to win today. She’s pretty intense, but in the best way possible.The best coach I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m sure everybody would say the same thing.We all chose to come here, and they also chose us, so that gives us the confidence we can do this. ”
The irony of last night’s appearance at Nationwide Arena is it came on the last night before the team’s return to offseason conditioning work. A champion never rests, of course, and the Buckeyes will go into next season with a target on their backs like never before.
Yet for now, there’s still a chance to enjoy the historic achievement, one that has been in the works for years. Finally, Ohio State has checked off all the boxes, and the hope is they’ll be rechecked for years to come.
“For five years, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a lot of firsts, a lot of records for this program,” Schepers siad. “Nothing is going to top this for me, and I hope it’s the start of a long run of championships for this program.”