Natalie Darwitz puts her stamp back on Gophers hockey
In first season back with Minnesota she has helped lift U back to the top
The 2020-21 coronavirus season was difficult for every team, but it didn’t explain the dip the Gophers women’s hockey team took. Something was missing, and it wasn’t talent.
Minnesota finished an abridged season 9-7-1 and was shut out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006-07. The Gophers were shocked to be left out but acknowledged they didn’t do enough to clinch a berth.
What was missing was embodied by Ohio State, a rising power coached by former Gophers forward Nadine Muzerall. The Buckeyes were the most aggressive team in the WCHA, and would be again this season if it weren’t for changes the Gophers made.
The Buckeyes hung their hats on a relentless attack which they used to advance to the conference championship game and NCAA Frozen Four.
Natalie Darwitz, coaching Hamline’s Division III team at the time, got a good look at the Buckeyes while providing color commentary for the WCHA Final Faceoff last March at Ridder Arena.
“I saw that firsthand, how Ohio State played,” she said. “They were skilled but yet … mean. Mean!”
That, head coach Brad Frost determined, was now required for Minnesota to get back to winning conference and national titles, and part of doing that was hiring Darwitz and her top assistant at Hamline, Jake Bobrowski, after Joel Johnson and Bethany Brausen left to help St. Thomas make the transition to Division I.
“It’s another reason I brought Jake and Natalie in, because that’s how they played at Hamline,” Frost said.
There’s no arguing with the results. The Gophers (26-7-1) have been ranked No. 1 in both weekly polls, plus the PairWise and RPI standings, since the beginning of February and last Saturday clinched their first WCHA regular-season championship since 2018.
“It was, in my opinion, an easy fix,” Darwitz said. “It’s a lot harder to get skill than to get some blue collar. It’s a lot easier to teach. So, if you combine them both …”
You get a national title contender.
Natalie Darwitz celebrates a 3-2 overtime victory over Wisconsin in the 2005 WCHA Final Faceoff championship game at Ridder Arena. The Eagan native and current Gophers assistant coach set a single-season scoring record with 114 points that season, and scored a hat trick in Minnesota’s 7-2 victory over Dartmouth in the NCAA championship game.
THE MISSING FACTOR
That bid starts in earnest Friday when the Gophers start the WCHA playoffs with a first-round game against St. Thomas at Ridder Arena. Puck drop is set for 6 p.m.
It was an easy sell for players who spent the summer stewing over missing the NCAA tournament, a shocking development for the team with the most NCAA championships — six, most recently in 2016 — plus an American Women’s Coaching Alliance title in 2000. A large group of seniors, in fact, had played in the 2019 NCAA championship game, a 2-0 loss to Wisconsin.
“After last year, they were so ticked off that they were open and willing to almost do anything,” Frost said, “and I knew how I wanted our team to play and how we needed to play to be successful.”
The presence of Darwitz has been a major factor.
A firebrand player who had started for Eagan’s boys team, she was a three-time All-American at Minnesota, scored a hat trick to lead the Gophers to an NCAA title in 2004, won three World Championships and three Olympic medals. As a junior, she set an NCAA single-season record with 114 points (42-72) in 40 games. It still stands.
“I think her being here is amazing,” senior center Taylor Heise said.
What Darwitz wanted to instill into Heise and others is what she calls the “I want to be the best player on the ice every shift factor. I think, naturally, as a coach I want to bring that factor.”
The results have been almost astonishing. Heading into the weekend, the Gophers and second-ranked Ohio State are tied for the nation’s lead in scoring with 152 goals apiece. The team’s third-leading scorer as a junior, seven goals among 16 points in 20 games, Heise now leads the nation in points (26-34–60) and should be on the list of 10 semifinalists for the Patty Kazmaier Trophy when it’s released this month.
Linemate Abigail Boreen might be there, too; she ranks fourth in points (21-31–52). Last year the senior from Hill-Murray had eight goals and 11 points. With wing Catie Skaja, the Gophers’ top line has combined for 149 points in 33 games, but it doesn’t end there. The second line of senior center Emily Oden and freshmen Peyton Hemp and Ella Huber have a combined 24 goals and 69 points, and the “third” line of Amy Potomak, Savannah Norcross and Audrey Wethington have 31 goals and 79 points.
“I’ll say things to the forwards every once in a while, but I really trust what (Darwitz and Bobrowski) are saying to our players,” Frost said. “And the way that they’re playing, I don’t want to say anything that’s going to screw them up.”
The Gophers have two goals remaining: winning the WCHA Final Faceoff, which will start March 5 at Ridder, and winning the team’s seventh NCAA title at the Frozen Four in State College, Pa., on March 18-20.
They’ve put themselves in position to do it, and proven they can beat the nation’s best, going 8-4-1 against teams in the Top 10 this season. “We’re in the driver’s seat,” Darwitz said, but it will be a challenge.
Minnesota hasn’t played a top team since going 1-0-1 against the Buckeyes on Jan. 28-29 in Columbus, and if they advance to the semifinals of the Final Faceoff it will be after at least four straight games against last-place St. Thomas, new to the WCHA, and Division I, this season.
“Can we turn that switch back on — hopefully, knock on wood — a week from now?” Darwitz said.
Minnesota has outscored St. Thomas, 30-4, in four games so far, and in fact has outscored its past six opponents, 36-7. Only St. Cloud State was able to build any sort of lead against the Gophers in that stretch. If they get past the Tommies this weekend, the Gophers will have to play Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State or Wisconsin in the semifinals.
“That’s probably my biggest concern, and now that extends to Monday through Thursday,” Darwitz said. “Can we get them ready?”
THE DARWITZ FILE
Natalie Darwitz has returned to the University of Minnesota as an assistant coach this season and helped the top-ranked Gophers become a title contender. “When Natalie walks into the room, everybody on our team perks up,” head coach Brad Frost said. Here’s a brief look at her resume:
- PLAYER: Three-time All-American at Minnesota; set NCAA single season scoring record 42-72—114 in 40 games as a junior; won three World Championships and three Olympic medals with Team USA (1999-2009); 2005 NCAA championship and Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player; 2005 USA Hockey Bob Allen Award as women’s player of the year; 2008 Bob Johnson Award as best hockey player representing U.S.
- COACH: Minnesota assistant, 2008; head coach Lakeville girls hockey 2011-13 (37-3-15); head coach Hamline University 2015-21 (92-37-11), two Division III Final Four appearances, 2018-19 national runner-up.