On Valentine's Day, Oswego gave a hearty salute to the first-ever senior class for the relaunched women's hockey program -- four players who helped bring the program from nowhere to the playoffs in just three years.
Oswego joined the ECAC West, a formidable conference in Division III women's hockey, where six teams make the playoffs. The top three conference teams -- Elmira, RIT and Plattsburgh -- live in the top five of national rankings, while Neumann and Utica have been ranked this season as well. But Oswego went 5-2-1 against the other four teams in the conference and -- after sweeping a pair of tense 1-0 games vs. Cortland -- vaulted into sixth place and was never threatened. It was a monument to how the players and Coach Diane Dillon built a program not expected to contend so quickly.
In the team's playoff debut Feb. 28, Oswego hung tough with Plattsburgh for two periods until the two-time defending national champions pulled away for a 6-1 victory over the Lakers.
On ice, there are parallels among the seniors. Jessica Lister '09 and Stepanie Esposito '09 are smaller, faster forwards who have been counted on to help drive the engine since the program began. Kendall Hanley '09 and Ashley Meyers '09 transferred in during the program's second year from ECAC West rivals to provide power and toughness from the defensive line.
Lister led the Lakers in goals and overall scoring her first two years; despite battling a knee injury part of this season, she will leave as the program's scoring leader. Esposito, who scored the relaunched program's first game-winning goal in its inaugural contest vs. Chatham, leads the Lakers in points this year and will graduate second on the career scoring list.
Meyers brings a lot of rink savvy, stick-handling skill and a powerful shot. Hanley, said to have the hardest shot on the team, also displays her work ethic as a 4.0 student.
The game-winning goal vs. Chatham, her first in college hockey, is a favorite memory for Esposito, a childhood education major and a regular on the President's List academically. The most local player, hailing from Parish, said being "a hard worker, both on and off of the ice" is an important asset she brings to the team, which she showed in coming back from a knee injury her junior year.
When not using her breakaway speed to make defenders look silly, Lister strives to provide "leadership skill both on and off the ice" for what is still a young team.
"My favorite moment would have to be our first game in the Campus Center with over 800 fans," said Lister, a global and international studies major from Aurora, Ontario. "There was a lot of excitement surrounding the new building and the return of women's hockey. It was great to be a part of the first women's team at Oswego in over 20 years."
According to tri-captain Angie Friesen '10, Meyers brought the program its first rivalry when she transferred to Oswego from Cortland. Meyers' favorite memory was when she knifed through Cortland's defense to score the game-winning goal against them in the Codfish Bowl Tournament in Boston her junior year.
It was the fourth time the two teams played, having tied the previous three times, "but finally we beat them, it helped make it bittersweet that I happened to score the game winner, but either way in a developing rivalry it's always nice to come out with a win," said Meyers, a wellness management major from Lockport. The Lakers haven't lost to the Red Dragons since.
A transfer from Elmira, Hanley said she brings "experience and a passion and willingness to always improve" to the team. An Oswego student blogger, the zoology major from Raleigh, N.C., spent the fall semester studying abroad in Australia. While she learned a lot there and during a summer study session in the Virgin Islands, Oswego and the team have felt like home.
"I think the most important thing I've gained as a Laker are the close friendships I've made with my teammates," Hanley said. "They are an amazing crew and mean the world to me. I've shared a lot of good moments in and outside the arena with them and I know I'll always have those memories to look back on."
Meyers cited "some very valuable life lessons" as an important takeaway. "I've learned to deal with all kinds of different people and I have gained a great group of friends and people to surround myself with as well as a whole lot of great memories," she added.
Lister said the "many important life skills and lessons that I will be able to carry on in my future endeavors" are key benefits of the program. She knows that making the playoffs will be an important part of the team's legacy.
"I think it's about time!" Lister said. "We have been working hard towards this the past three seasons and it will be good to see all of the work pay off."
Because the year-opening poll picked the Lakers to finish ninth in the league, making the playoffs, overcoming the doubters, was even sweeter, Meyers noted. "This is my last chance to make playoffs. I think it says a lot about where this program could go in the future, especially if we continue to get support from the school and community," Meyers said.
"Granted it is only our third year, but we are a hard-working and talented group," Hanley said. "Making the playoffs has been our goal since the beginning and achieving this goal is a huge accomplishment for the program, one that we should be proud of."
Drawing Plattsburgh in the first round was something Esposito acknowledged beforehand as "a tough first game ... but anything is possible if everyone is willing to work hard and play their part on the team."
"I think the timing couldn't be any better," Esposito said. "It's my senior year, and what better way to finish out the season?"
-- Tim Nekritz M '05
Upper photo: Jessica Lister '09 was one of four seniors leading the Laker women's hockey team to its first-ever playoff appearance.
Lower photo: The team to make the playoffs was led by, from left: Lister, Kendall Hanley '09, Ashley Meyers '09 and Stephanie Esposito '09.
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