Lady Beacons pass early test

Ryan Thomas

The three-game stretch that started with a forgettable loss at Manhattanville College ended for the Lady Beacons only days later with a memorable win at home against St. Anslem’s College.

The Lady Beacons, who started their 2008-09 hockey season with five games against ECAC Women’s East opponents – including the three top teams from 2007-08 – finished their gauntlet of early season games brandishing a 3-1-1 record good enough for third place in the conference.

Against Manhattanville last Saturday, the Lady Beacons were embarrassed, 8-1, in Purchase, New York. Neither Crowell nor star forward Maria Nasta made excuses for the team’s poor play.

“I don’t think they did anything tricky or anything that we hadn’t seen before,” Crowell said after the game. “I told [the girls] ‘that was a first class ass whooping that we just took.’ No two ways about it. We just got our asses kicked.”

“There was a definite chance we could have beat them but we just came out and didn’t prove ourselves,” Nasta said.

Manhattanville scored four first-period goals – three on the power play – and the game UMass Boston was hoping to prove itself in was lost.

Luckily the Lady Beacons did not have much time to dwell on the loss. Only 24 hours later, the girls would step into Holy Cross’ Hart Center in Worcester to face a team just as formidable as Manhattanville.

The Lady Beacons came out on fire with goals from Kristen Smith and Kelly Gillis and killed off four Crusader power plays in the first period. UMass Boston would squander the lead twice, but skated away with a 4-4 tie that pleased Crowell. She said the game was “a true test of our character and what we think we can accomplish as a team.”

It was a step in the right direction for the Lady Beacons, but their most challenging game of the season – a battle against St. Anslem’s (17-1-1 in 2007-08) – was looming. Adding to the pressure was an injury to first line star Lauren Duran, who sprained her elbow in the second period of the Manhattanville game when her arm got caught between two players.

Kelly Gillis, a freshman, replaced the injured Duran on the top line with Nasta and Rachel Sousa. Gillis didn’t waste any time getting acquainted, as she fed Nasta for a power play score 15 minutes in to tie the game, 1-1. That started a string of six straight goals by the Lady Beacons, with Gillis assisting on another and scoring her third goal of the season 8:05 into the second period to make it 4-1, UMass Boston.

“I thought she would compliment the other players on the first line,” Crowell said, citing Gillis’s creativeness and passing ability. “She’s a very skilled forward.”

Nasta provided the rest of the fire power with her line mate down, recording a hat trick and adding two assists.

Gillis, a former member of the Connecticut Polar Bears (a nationally respected club team), highlights the new class of recruits Crowell brought in this year to solidify secondary scoring. Gillis had been centering the third line until Duran was injured. She has two goals and two assists in two games as a starter, and three goals this season in five games.

On the blue line, Britney Usmail (5 games, 1 assist) and Emily Brienzo (5 games, 1 goal, 1 assist) add depth to a defensive core of Hannah Davis, Jazz Webber and Amanda Cianciulli. Usmail and Brienzo have so far been paired with Cianciulli and Jacqui Villani, who was a surprise walk-on. Villani, a junior, walked one year removed from starting for Manhattanville. Crowell was pleasantly surprised with the late addition of a defenseman with playoff experience.

“She’s a huge asset,” Crowell said. “She comes from a program where national championships are their goal, so to bring that kind of attitude into our locker room is awesome.”

Goalie has been a revolving door throughout the first five games, but after a 30-save performance against St. Anslem’s, freshman Jami Cudmore from Balgonie, Saskatchewan seems to be solidifying herself as the team’s starter. “Canadian goaltenders tend to have this innate technical ability,” Crowell said. “They’re a little more aggressive, it seems to [come] naturally for them.”

Nasta likes Cudmore’s ability and prowess in the net as well. She said that once Cudmore learns to control her rebounds more effectively, she could be one of the top goalies in the league.

Nasta, with a hat trick in the win over St. Anslem’s, now has four goals and seven assists on the season, tied for third in the ECAC Women’s East. In 2007-08, Nasta was second in points with 45 (20 G, 25 A) and her knack for finding teammates extended onto the power play last season, where she piled up 14 assists and two goals.

“If its there, I’m gonna take a shot from the point, that’s one thing I’m trying, but other than that its pretty much the same as last year,” Nasta said before she scored two power play goals against St. Anslem’s. As far as she is concerned, those goals were an anomaly.

“I usually pass the puck more. I’m more of a playmaker. I was never taught to be a puck hog and I’ll continue not to be a puck hog. I’m confident with anyone on my team that, if I pass them the puck, they’re going to do something with it.”

With Duran not due back until December 5 or 6 for the Lady Beacons’ games against Castleton State and Norwich, Nasta may just have to put this team on her back and “play at a whole new level than everybody on the ice,” something Crowell thinks she can do if she wants to.

She wanted to against St. Anslem’s.

Ryan Thomas can be reached at [email protected]