Nyden Hill – Staff Writer
This past weekend, on Sunday, Feb. 26, the Gustavus women’s hockey team took the ice against Hamline University for the MIAC conference championship semifinals, in defense of their 2022 team title. The Gusties entered the matchup as the odds-on favorites, with only one MIAC loss on their record and placed firmly atop the MIAC rankings. On the other hand, the Pipers were situated in the middle of the MIAC pack with an in-conference record of just below .500 (8-9-1).
Despite the seemingly-massive advantage that the Gusties had, their mindset remained steadfast as they looked to punch their ticket to the MIAC finals.
“I think that it was important for us to not overlook Hamline just because we were the number one seed…Playoff hockey is completely different from regular-season hockey. Anything can happen,” Senior forward Clara Billings said.
In the opening minutes of the first period of action, offensively, it was quiet from both sides. After the first ten minutes of action, the score remained 0-0, with the Gusties having overall puck control throughout those ten minutes.
“Capitalizing on our offensive opportunities was our struggle in the first period. The game was pretty even for both sides, but we had a little trouble scoring,” First-year forward Lily Mortenson said.
The first goal of the afternoon came, with Mortenson taking it upon herself to beat the Piper defenders and skate in for a momentum-building goal.
“I think it was really big for us. Usually in hockey, once you get one goal, they keep coming, it was really nice to get that momentum,” Mortenson said.
After the first Gustie goal, the second period most certainly did not disappoint. Senior forward, Tina Press, notched the second goal of the afternoon, and just two minutes later, Sophomore forward, Kaitlyn Holland added to the Gusties’ second-period explosion with a goal of her own, making the score 3-0 in favor of Gustavus. Junior forward Brooke Power got in on the action as well, scoring a goal at the 5:10 mark from a face-off. The Gusties’ final goal of the afternoon came from Press, increasing her total for the afternoon to two scores.
“Hockey is a big game of momentum and we were able to capitalize on our chances and catch the other team and goalie off guard. I think they were on their heels a little bit. Once one, two, and three come, there were bound to be some more,” said Billings.
When the final buzzer sounded, signaling the end to the game, the Gusties secured a dominant 5-1 win and trip to the MIAC finals for the second year in a row.
While the stage for the Gusties will look very similar to last year, they will defend their title without a very important piece to their team and family, a Senior defenseman, Heather Olinger.
Olinger suffered a broken spine during a contest against St. Benedict’s College on January 13, as a result of an illegal check from behind by a St. Benedict’s player. Olinger said the following when asked about her immediate reaction to the injury.
“As soon as it happened, I knew it was really bad. I kind of assumed I had broken my back/neck pretty bad. It was definitely the worst pain I had ever felt, so I knew it was pretty bad right away,” Olinger said.
Despite suffering a very painful and life-changing injury, Olinger has received monumental support from the Gustavus community and beyond, even raising tens of thousands of dollars on a GoFundMe in her honor and for support. When asked about what kind of impact having this support has had on her outlook, Olinger was undeniably appreciative and hopeful.
“It was honestly kind of indescribable. It’s been so amazing and such a blessing to have so many people reach out and say their condolences. It just makes me feel like I can do it. It has given me a lot of courage and faith to keep going and keep getting better,” said Olinger.
Prior to her senior year, Olinger put together quite the resume in her three years playing in a black and gold jersey. A three-year contributor, Olinger has recorded honors, including being a 2-time Academic Academic All-Conference and 2-time ACHA All-American Scholar. Aside from her injury, in reflecting on her decorated career as a Gustie, Olinger is very happy with her own performance and contributions.
“My experience here has been amazing, both in school and on the ice. My teammates have really grown to be my family and I really, truly am so grateful to have met them and made lifelong friends,” Olinger said.
With the MIAC Championship occurring next Saturday, March 4, we wish the Gusties the best of luck as they hope to repeat as conference champions. We also wish Heather the best of luck as she progresses toward a full recovery.