Feb. 21, 2007
NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Four years ago, it seemed like an ambitious and even risky experiment. Take eight freshmen with strong personalities, mix them together for dozens of hours each week, throw in the ups and downs of a typical hockey season, and try to turn around a program that had been struggling. But the end results show that with the Class of 2007, the Yale Bulldogs got the formula right.
"It's probably one of the most unique groups," said forward Christina Sharun (Nanaimo, B.C.). "We've got such a variety of personalities; it's amazing that we all get along as well as we do. But we do, and we all mesh together really well. We've got people from literally all over the place and all different walks of life. It's kind of cool to see that come together."
The group -- Sharun, defenseman Regan Gilbride (White Plains, N.Y.), goaltender Carrie Horbatuk (Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.), forward Kelsey Johnson (Wayzata, Minn.), defenseman Nina Resor (Westwood, Mass.), forward Kristin Savard (Framingham, Mass.), forward Jenna Spring (Cranbrook, B.C.) and forward Sheila Zingler (Wausau, Wisc.) -- has come together to the tune of 54 victories, more than any other class in school history. They have helped end decades-long losing streaks, lifted Yale to a national ranking on multiple occasions, and been a part of the Bulldogs' first-ever playoff victories.
But four years ago they were just a bunch of recruits looking at a team that, in 2002-03, was on its way to another 20-loss season -- the Bulldogs' seventh in nine years at that point (and the other two years were 19-loss seasons).
Enter Yale's new-look coaching staff. Prior to the 2002-03 season, assistant coach Hilary Witt had been elevated to head coach and Harry Rosenholtz had moved up to associate head coach. Joined by assistant coach Paul Nemetz-Carlson, they faced a challenging roster situation. Only 12 players would return for 2003-04, so a large group of freshmen was needed. Assembling the Class of 2007 was to be one of the staff's most important projects.
"It was important for us to recruit kids with strong character who were great athletes and also very good in the classroom," Rosenholtz said. "We wanted to make a statement that you can win and do it the right way -- and that ultimately, it's more satisfying to do it that way."
The Bulldogs' staff knew that talent was only going to be part of the equation. With the odds stacked against them and the possibility of some tough times en route to the eventual successes, finding quality individuals who could work together to weather a few storms was essential. Fortunately, Yale was able to locate characters that fit the master plan for the Class of 2007. As Witt was on her way to ECAC Coach of the Year honors that season, Rosenholtz was on his way to rinks throughout North America as part of the staff's recruiting efforts.
"Harry understands people," Zingler said. "He recruits people not necessarily based only on how good they are at hockey, but how well he thinks they're going to fit in with this team. He doesn't want to recruit a super-good player that has no ability to mesh with the team."
The staff used a variety of means to evaluate players for the right attributes. Some times those qualities were evident on paper -- Sharun, for example, was captain of multiple teams in high school, indicative of her leadership ability. Other times it could be something as simple as one play, such as the one Resor made when she was playing for Assabet Valley in the national championship.
And even with the emphasis on off-ice qualities and doing the little things, there were also great athletes. Zingler spent most of her time during the winter playing basketball, and she also was a standout in volleyball and track. At 5-feet-9-inches, she clearly had potential on the ice.
Of course, finding those people was only part of the battle. Getting all of them to want to come to Yale was another part. For some of the would-be Bulldogs, the challenges that waited provided part of the appeal.
"I was very aware [that the team had struggled] and it was part of why I chose to come here," Johnson said. "I liked the idea of turning something around and starting a new tradition, rather than coming to something that was already established."
And even before the Class of 2007 arrived, the turnaround had begun. Impact players such as forward Deena Caplette '06 (fourth on Yale's career points list with 95), defenseman Erin Duggan '05 (third on Yale's career points list with 97) and goaltender Sarah Love '06 (Yale's career save percentage leader at .915) had all signed on in previous years and started setting the tone. That did not go unnoticed by the recruits.
"I had seen Yale play that year [2002-03]," Savard said. "I saw the kids who were playing above me, and they were good players. There was definitely a lot of strength in the underclassmen that year. On top of that I had been coached by Hilary at the National Camp and I was confident she could turn the program around."
The people in the program helped with the sales pitch off the ice as well. For some of the recruits, it only took one visit to the campus and a chance to meet the players and coaches in person to convince them that Yale was the place to be.
"I loved it here on my visit and felt at home here," Spring said. "They were just so optimistic about it and really believed in the class they were recruiting. They thought that we could really turn it around."
Resor, whose cousin Jane Resor '01 played for the Bulldogs, also made up her mind after visiting.
"I didn't think I'd wind up at Yale because I had had so many family members go here, uncles and second cousins," Resor said. "But when I came on my visit I loved it. I decided right away that I wanted to come."
The process was not as straightforward for Zingler, who waited until the last possible day before sending in her application.
"I was very up in the air because I had had other schools offer money, and that was a big thing for me," she said. "But I had so many people saying to me `Why on earth would you ever pass up the opportunity to come to Yale?'"
So Zingler signed on, admittedly only partially aware of what she was getting into.
"I was so caught up in everything that was going on [with the application process] that I didn't even really think about the fact that I was coming into a program that had struggled," she said. "It never really crossed my mind. I didn't even know much about everybody that was coming in. I don't really obsess about the future ... but then when we got here we became aware of that very quickly."
But the young Bulldogs also were aware that the coaching staff had confidence in them. Starting in 2003-04, Witt and Rosenholtz were joined by assistant coach Kim Mathias, and that group has remained intact for four years. More recruiting classes have come in to supplement the Class of 2007's efforts.
"They've always just had a lot of faith in us as a group," Spring said. "They have looked to our class as a class that can help change things. They put pressure on us, but it's been more in terms of a challenge to live up to than negative pressure."
And they had each other to help deal with that challenge. Their chemistry was apparent immediately freshman year.
"From day one we started hanging out," Zingler said. "I remember seeing Kelsey Johnson the first night that I was on campus, and from then on I didn't even care if my parents left, I was so excited to get to hang out with the team."
The new kids were also welcomed by the veterans.
"We went over to Nicole Symington's the first night that I was here," Zingler said. "It was really cool, and we hit it off right away. Ever since then I think the compatibility of our class has really helped to get us through everything."
That meant getting through a 16-loss season in 2003-04. The baby steps did start coming that first year, starting when Savard scored the game-winning goal in Yale's season opening 1-0 win against Maine. Yale also defeated Princeton, ranked No. 8 in the country at the time, and tied two other ranked teams: No. 7 Mercyhurst and No. 9 New Hampshire. The 12 wins Yale got that season tied what was then the school record.
Still, as the 2004-05 season got underway, there was plenty of work to be done. That was apparent after four games, when the Bulldogs were 2-2 and coming off a 9-1 loss at the hands of Dartmouth.
And then came the breakthrough.
Ask any member of the Class of 2007 for highlights of the past four years, and you're sure to hear about Nov. 12, 2004: the night the Bulldogs beat Harvard for the first time in 20 years. The Crimson had won 39 in a row in the series, outscoring Yale 209-41, but none of that mattered on that memorable night at Ingalls Rink. All seven of the then-sophomore skaters played. Johnson had a goal and an assist and Zingler assisted on what turned out to be the game-winning goal, but those individual feats have faded away compared to memories of the group celebration that ensued. As fate would have it, the CD that had been left playing in the locker room was on the song "Oh What a Night" as the team came in and began celebrating after the game. That song is now permanently engrained in the brains of those who were there.
"That was amazing," Johnson said. "The locker room after, with everyone singing along at the top of their lungs, and screaming, that's something that I'll never forget."
More celebrations were to come. Later that month the team began a six-game winning streak, tying the school record. A tie at Brown, created by a goal from Sharun with 3:35 to play, stopped a 35-game losing streak against the Bears.
The Bulldogs fed off the chance to put an end to those streaks, eventually ending a 41-gamer against Dartmouth and a 19-gamer against Northeastern in 2005-06.
"That was a huge motivation going into those games, at least for me," Zingler said. "We had been told that we were going to change things over and over and over again. There was a lot of pressure in that we needed to show that we could change the program by beating these teams for the first time in years."
The victories continued as the 2004-05 regular season drew to an end, and a 3-0 win at Vermont gave Yale its school-record 13th win of the season. A 4-2 win over Princeton in the next game gave the Bulldogs home ice advantage in the ECAC quarterfinals for the first time, and they took advantage of that to dispatch the Tigers in two games and advance to the ECAC semifinals.
That historic 16-win season ended with a heart-breaking 2-1 loss in overtime to Harvard in the semis, but the accomplishments continued in the succeeding seasons. In addition to ending losing streaks against Dartmouth and Northeastern in 2005-06, the Bulldogs also followed up on the previous year's tie by getting a win against Brown -- their first in that series since 1988. Yale also pieced together a school-record seven-game unbeaten streak and made its sixth straight playoff appearance.
The 2006-07 season has seen Yale break more records, including the school mark for goals in a season. The Bulldogs also won the Nutmeg Classic for the first time and have been ranked as high as No. 10 in the country. And on Jan. 13, with a 5-1 win over Clarkson that was highlighted by a natural hat trick in the third period by Zingler, the Class of 2007 got its 49th win and became the winningest class in Yale history.
The seniors get along so well that seven of the eight all live in the same off-campus apartment building -- and don't worry about the only one who doesn't live there, because she is far from a recluse. That's Savard, the one they all elected team captain. While she's the only one who remains on campus, she's still a regular at her classmates' residence. There, the seven are spread out across three different apartments.
"It's nice," Savard said. "They have the place all to themselves. They can walk across the hall if they ever need anything. I can just show up and know that one of their doors will be open and someone will be home."
That togetherness underscores just how well the group has adapted to the challenges of fitting eight individuals into a team concept.
"We all play different roles on the team, and that's very evident," Savard said. "What's good is that everyone on the team really understands how valuable those roles are."
"Our different personalities build on each other," said Johnson. "We have people who get us places on time, we have people who make us laugh, we have people who make us care a lot about hockey. Everyone contributes something unique, and the sum is greater than the parts."
Put Zingler under the category of "people who make us laugh."
"She's hilarious," Spring said. "She's that funny personality that's great to have around."
Nicknamed "The Big Show," Zingler has always been one of the more exuberant personalities on the team. This season she's become a dominant force on the ice as well, establishing career highs in goals, assists and points. Her efforts have earned her recognition as a finalist for the NCAA Frozen Four Skills Competition.
"One thing that Hilary has tried to do since I was a freshman is to give me confidence in using my body to do stuff like driving wide," Zingler said. "[She reminds me that] I'm big, I'm fast, I'm strong, I just need to be more confident with the puck. That's one thing that I think has come together this year. In the past two or three years I was often nervous with the puck and I wouldn't hold onto it when I should have. I've learned by now that I can be an asset when I do hold onto the puck."
"Zingler's come a long way," Witt said. "As the years have gone on she's a kid that has gotten better every year. She's doing the things that we asked her to. She's a hard worker in the weight room -- she always has been. She wants to get better. She has that natural athletic instinct and that natural competitiveness. She wants to win every time."
Another player whose performance this year has drawn notice is Gilbride.
"I think she's played so well this year -- the best of any year that she's played," said Resor. "She's really stepped up. She works hard at everything. It also shows through in her academic work."
With five freshmen and sophomore defensemen seeing regular action, the presence of Gilbride and Resor on the blue line has been all the more important this year.
"On defense, we have some young defensemen who are playing a lot," Savard said. "Having the veteran defensemen back there -- Regan and Nina, who are usually more quiet people but really show through their efforts during the game -- really sets the example."
Gilbride has also seen some time at forward, and might have spent more time up there if it weren't for the team's needs.
"She's got great hands," Witt said. "Over the last few years if we had a little more depth at D we would have used her at forward more, because she definitely has a good knack around the net and can score some goals."
Resor has been a model of perseverance, battling her way through illness and injuries to play in 13 games this season. She also missed seven games as a sophomore, and the way she fought through that and several other injuries earned her Yale's inaugural Coaches' Award for grit and determination that year.
"The Coaches' Award was basically started because of Nina Resor," Witt said. "The great thing about Nina is that her arm could be falling off and she's still going to tell you she can go. She wants to play all the time, and she doesn't like excuses."
Savard has played with Resor since they were coming up through the youth hockey ranks in Massachusetts.
"She gets hurt, but she always perseveres," Savard said. "She always finds a way to push through it. She's definitely one of our most consistent defensemen. You always know that she'll give her best effort and she won't complain about anything."
Resor's off-ice personality also fits in well. Amidst a locker room with plenty of loud voices, Resor is the one who knows what to say and when to say it.
"Nina is so laid back, you can talk to her about anything," Zingler said. "She's always there. She really understands people very well. When she speaks in the locker room, everybody listens. Whatever she says is always very important."
Johnson is another player whose words echo loudly with her teammates.
"Kelsey's been probably the greatest motivator on the team this year in terms of always keeping everyone's head in the game," Savard said.
"Kelsey's super-positive," Spring said. "She's been one of the most supportive, up-beat people on our team all year, constantly picking people up."
Johnson also brings a tremendous work ethic.
"She'll do anything for you," Resor said. "She works the hardest of anyone -- in the classroom, on the ice, with her community service. I really respect the way she works so hard at everything."
During that record-setting 2004-05 season, Johnson was asked to move back to defense and did so for the benefit of the team. Sharun also spent time back at the blue line.
"Christina Sharun would do absolutely anything for anyone on our team," Resor said. "She always stays there after practice, she does the laundry, she sharpens skates. She's just one of the most selfless teammates."
"She's always got practice with her team -- she's all about that," Zingler said. "She's always telling us story about her kids. She loves coaching. If there's one person that comes out of here that's going to be a coach it's definitely going to be Christina. She's so good with kids, and she's always very enthusiastic about everything."
Sharun also brings a touch of the West coast to the Yale roster -- her hobbies include surfing and Rosenholtz notes that she's the only recruit he recalls wearing sweatpants and high tops on her visit. Her relaxed demeanor makes her easy to get along with.
"She's very chill," Zingler said. "I just go up and hang out in her room and she's making banana bread or granola bars and you can just sit and hang out with her."
The other B.C. native on the roster, Spring, brings a whole different set of traits to the team.
"Jenna's great -- you really can't take her out of her game," Savard said. "She's having one of her best seasons that she's had here. She's always there in key situations."
That was true even when Spring was being recruited.
"Jenna Spring was always the go-to kid," Rosenholtz said. "When a team needed to get carried on somebody's back, Jenna was always able to step up and get a key goal or make a great pass."
That reputation led to some raised expectations when Spring arrived at Yale, but she has handled those demands with poise.
"She's the type of kid that, when she's frustrated, finds a way to deal with it," Witt said. "She's had to battle through a lot in terms of expectations. We've asked her to change her game a little bit, which is always hard, and she's done that with a smile on her face. She's just a joy to coach."
"Carrie has done everything that Hilary has asked her to do," Resor said. "Whenever she's been needed, she's been there."
"We owe a lot to Carrie Horbatuk, and we appreciate what she did," Witt said.
Now, take all of the positive traits of the rest of the class, roll them up into one 5-foot-5-inch package, and you've got Savard. Selfless, dedicated and intelligent, she manages to earn her teammates' respect while remaining down-to-earth and featuring a sense of humor to boot.
"I think she does a good job of embodying our class as captain with her passion on the ice, not diminished by the fact that she has passion for other things such as community involvement," Johnson said. "What's impressive is the fact that she can be so serious and yet have such a great time."
Savard's charisma was apparent as soon as she arrived on campus.
"She got here and naturally became a leader without trying," Witt said. "If anybody had a problem or a question about what they were supposed to do, Savard was the one they asked."
Thus, even surrounded by so many leaders in her class, Savard was a natural choice when it came time to vote for captain last spring. She has filled that role as well as anyone.
"She's probably one of the best captains that's ever come through the program," Sharun said. "She's one of the greatest leadership-type personalities that I've ever met -- not only vocally, but she's also a kid that goes out there and gets it done and provides just a phenomenal example for everybody else."
Off the ice Savard relates easily to anyone and everyone around her, inspiring a winning attitude at all times.
"She would do anything for the team," Spring said. "That's her biggest thing. She also really cares about us as individuals -- she sees if there's a problem and will talk about it right away. The bottom line for her is our team's success, and that's regardless of her situation. She just wants us to win."
In the end that one trait -- a desire to win -- runs through every member of the Class of 2007, expressing itself in a variety of ways.
"Even with all of our differing personalities one thing we definitely all have in common is an intense focus and drive," Sharun said. "That's something that we put into everything that we do, every single one of us."
And that means more than just hockey. Even if they had never set foot on the ice, the members of the Class of 2007 would have had a major impact during their time at Yale. Savard has garnered national attention as a finalist for the Hockey Humanitarian Award in part because she founded an organization, Teaming Up, dedicated to raising awareness and funds for maternal health issues in South Africa. Johnson has been extensively involved with the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life program and is currently working on a senior thesis about eradicating malaria. Spring has volunteered at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and Sharun teaches and coaches.
"I think that we all just push each other to be better and we all become involved with things," Savard said, noting that Johnson has helped her with grant information as she attempts to expand her Teaming Up project throughout the country. "Once you hear what one girl is attracted to, you want to find a way to get involved. We've all helped each other out along the way. We all really work well together and look out for each other."
In addition to all they've done on the ice and in the community, the Class of 2007 has also excelled in the classroom. They have a combined 11 ECAC All-Academic Team Awards in the last two seasons, including at least one for every player that has been eligible. Resor and Spring were both AWHCA All-Academic last season, and this year Johnson has been named one of three finalists for the ECAC's inaugural Student-Athlete of the Year Award.
"We share common goals," Johnson said. "Academics are important, and volunteering is important. It's part of who we are."
The Class of 2007's varying future plans represent their differing personalities. Zingler is headed to Las Vegas, where she has a job in the insurance industry. Gilbride will be working in finance in New York. Horbatuk, Johnson and Spring all have plans to be in the medical field. Johnson will start by spending next summer continuing her malaria research at a lab back home in Minnesota and will then spend a year working for a biotechnology company in Massachusetts. Spring will start by completing her pre-med requirements this summer.
Sharun, who lists her career objective as owner of an adventure tourism company, plans to head to Croatia and work for a sea kayaking company there run by Resor's family. Resor and Savard are still sorting out their options, as Savard continues exploring ways to remain involved with Teaming Up.
One interesting note about the Class of 2007 is that even after they graduate, their names will remain a part of Yale's future success -- literally, because two of them have relatives on the team. It's the ultimate compliment to any program when a player -- and her family -- feels comfortable recommending it to a younger sibling. That's happened twice with this class, as Resor's sister Carry is a sophomore and Johnson's sister Berit is a freshman.
"She was very concerned about following in my footsteps again, because we went to a small high school, and she wanted to do her own thing," Kelsey said. "All I asked her was that she give Yale a chance when she came to visit -- that she consider it, and not just write it off because I was here -- because I loved being here so much. That was all she needed to hear. Yale did the rest."
Nina Resor didn't need to say much to convince Carry, but what she did say summed up what the Yale women's ice hockey Class of 2007 is all about.
"I told her that our team was really great," Nina said. "I felt that that was one of the most important things if you were going to play in college. Because you spend so much time with the people on your team, I think it's really important that you like them and you want to spend time with them. I couldn't have asked for a better team."
by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity