Lindenwood-Belleville at McKendree
McKendree Metro Rec Plex
September 21, 2019
As much as I hate the hours-long drive to just about any game, I do appreciate it on some level. If nothing else, it’s a clear line in the sand. Either you want to be there enough to make the drive, or you don’t. If you don’t, you should probably find something else to do with your time and money. On the micro level, it’s a weekly personal test. On the macro level, it’s a filter that weeds out many of the less committed across the ACHA.
The beginning of a new season raises the stakes even further. Every offseason presents an opportunity to make a clean break, to say “okay, my cycle here is complete, what’s next?”
And the thing is, no matter how committed you are, no matter how excited you are for what’s at the end of the drive, there are always going to be moments of doubt. Sometimes they happen before you start, sometimes they come in the form of a thunderstorm a couple hours in that make 9 a.m. pitch black, and suddenly you’re cursing the confluence of decisions and circumstances that placed you in that moment.
The conditions were treacherous for a while, but just as suddenly as the storm appeared, a stratified sky appeared in front of me. Dark above, but bright blue below, in the near distance.
If I could just get through the next ten minutes or so, everything was going to be okay.
As drives go, the eight hours to the St. Louis area from Northeast Ohio has at least one positive. The first half is littered with checkpoints – Columbus, Dayton, Indianapolis – that sort of divide the whole thing into manageable bites. After Indy though, you’re engulfed by the near-literal nothingness of western Indiana and southern Illinois. Counting miles is a terrible idea at that point. It’s best to let your music, your podcasts, college football games and, if you’re lucky, some long trains of thought do most of the work.
I wonder how many ACHA women’s teams have their logo at center ice.
McKendree is one. Their purple bearcat with an arched “McKendree” on top lives in the faceoff circle in the gleaming, new McKendree Metro Rec Plex, located six minutes away from campus in O’Fallon, Illinois. The facility, which opened in early 2017 (right at the end of the team’s first season of existence) includes a pair of ice rinks, but also a swimming pool and a gym. As the name and logo suggest, the Bearcats women’s and men’s programs are lead tenants there, a rarity in the ACHA.
There are others, although most (but not all) carry a massive asterisk as teams playing in arenas used by NCAA teams at their school. The ACHA teams in those cases are incidental to the logo, not the reason it exists.
What’s the logo worth?
Intrinsically, not a ton. It’s just paint under three-quarters of an inch of ice, after all. On a broader level though, it surely indicates something about the mutual commitment between venue, school, and team. It’s not something you have if you’re entirely self-funded and throwing out your sticks on a Saturday at whichever local rink had availability.
McKendree’s athletic department-funded program has recruited high-end players from not only the St. Louis area, but also Massachusetts, British Columbia, and many points between to a mostly-anonymous school in a small, southern Illinois town. Between its talent level, off-ice culture, and on-ice product, coach Derek Pallardy’s team emerged as one of the ACHA’s best in 2018-19. The Bearcats ticked off wins over perennial powers like Massachusetts and Michigan State on the way to its first ACHA Division 1 National Tournament bid. Not bad for year three of existence.
“With McKendree being an NCAA Division II school, we essentially have an NCAA Division II hockey program, and not a typical ‘club’ team,” Pallardy explained. “We have full-time coaches and staff, full funding from our athletic department, and a great facility just minutes from campus. Our players get to play hockey every day, compete at a high level, and do it wearing their school’s jersey.”
Senior forward Chase Hallemann agreed: “What separates us is the commitment level and intensity of our team. We have the schedule of an NCAA team, and I think that’s why we have been such a successful team so quickly.”
McK is an easy team to like. They play a superstar-free brand of hockey with an emphasis on toughness, defense, and goaltending – the right way to play the game, according to purists and old people – with Jazmin Malinowski and Naomi Leasck representing arguably the ACHA’s best goaltending tandem last season. They’re also good elsewhere, very good, while nevertheless occupying a sweet spot where they’re still something of an underdog next to most national championship contenders, avoiding the bulk of the irrational hate that perennial powers like Adrian and Miami receive.
Need more? Defenseman Jana Garrow won the ACHA’s annual Community Playmaker award for 2018-19, in part for her push to designate a charity of the game for each of the Bearcats’ home weekends. For my trip to Illinois, the charity is Be The Match, the non-profit facilitating bone marrow donations. Throughout the week, the team shares information about the charity and donation links, culminating in a display at the game.
“My freshman year, I started doing different kinds of charity work for our team, like a Christmas stocking stuffing donation and Relay For Life,” Garrow, a Pittsburgh native explained while setting up the display. “So we’d already been doing some charity events, but I wanted to think of a way to get our audience, our friends and family, involved in the process.”
“I think it’s really important that we foster a sense of giving back to the community on our team. You can win as much as you want, but if you’re not really doing anything to help others…”
In other words, they’ve lived up to that logo on and off the ice, they’re not a fraud hiding behind the veneer of money and legitimacy.
The story of how all of this came together so quickly and with few major hiccups is a complex one, but it has common threads.
Hallemann was the first player to commit in the program’s history, and did so largely on academic considerations (specifically, her biology pre-professional program), with the hockey side of things still an unknown at the time. “All of my professors know me personally, so it’s super easy to get help if I need it, and the campus is also very small, so you get to know a lot of people fast, which helped my move from home to college.”
Assistant coach Nina Elia, a former player at Penn State, saw McKendree as the ideal place to continue her young coaching career and her studies and when a graduate assistant spot opened up, a backup plan at Ohio’s Gilmour Academy was the only other option she pursued. Elia also cited McK’s size and flexibility as major positives.
Team captain Callie Hoadley, from Massachusetts, had options but liked what the team had to offer. “They have a real family bond out here,” she offered. “I liked how small the campus was and that everyone knew each other.”
Everyone makes the drive in club hockey, in one way or another. For Hoadley and Elia, it was heading halfway across the country to an unfamiliar setting (if Lebanon, Illinois has much in common with suburban Boston, I missed it). For Hallemann, it was the leap of faith of being the first commit for a new program, then sweating it out when the second took a bit longer than expected.
It’s a path not at all dissimilar from the one blazed by their opponent, Lindenwood-Belleville, a school located just 20 minutes from the McKendree Metro Rec Plex, in the opposite direction from McK’s campus (although the Lynx play their home games on the other side of the Mississippi River, in a rink that does not have their logo at center ice). LUB started up in 2014, made nationals in 2016, and finally broke through a string of heartbreak to make it to the championship game in 2019. While they’ve had players win most of the ACHA’s major national honors, at their core, the Lynx are still built on unselfish play and the depth of roster pulled from (quite literally) all over the world.
The oddest part of the McK-LUB relationship is that in a world where nearby opponents of any quality are as good as cash, the pair didn’t meet on the ice until their third year of mutual existence. It was a cold war of sorts, if you enjoy terrible wordplay.
That’s not to say that it was uneventful. Just like the proper-noun Cold War, the early seasons featured their share of tense moments. Its Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was Craig Buntenbach, who was Lindenwood-Belleville’s inaugural coach during a fairly successful 2014-15 season…then abruptly left to become the first coach at McKendree in August of 2015, in preparation for the 2016-17 campaign. Détente finally began when Buntenbach didn’t last at McK either, and was replaced by Pallardy for year two.
ACHA Division 1’s nearest neighbors outside of the state of Michigan finally played each other in 2018-19, although the senior program took all three meetings by decisive 5-0, 7-2, and 4-1 counts.
So are they rivals? Hallemann thinks so. Pallardy believes it needs another year or two to develop. Lindenwood-Belleville stars Lindsay Gillis and Alicia Williams say that it might be starting to become one, while Lynx sports information director Johnny Lange has spent most of the last two seasons refusing to use “the r-word.” Everyone thinks, nobody knows. Let’s go with a qualified no for now, and just call it what it definitely is: a huge game between national championship contenders, with the added intrigue of officially christening Women’s Midwest College Hockey, the teams’ new shared conference.
Of course, there’s also a downside to having a center ice logo. When your not-really rival spoils opening night in a 3-1 slugfest littered with missed opportunities, it’s a bit more personal. There’s a reason locker rooms generally feature a logo on the floor and rules against stepping on it: that logo matters. And when your opponent forms a grinning conga line to skate through the middle of that logo, shake your hand and say “good game,” you can’t make them do pushups.
They came into “Bearcat Country” (as giant letters above the Metro Rec Plex entrance proclaim), took a look at the purple dashers and stanchions, and then took the hockey game. There’s a hurt connected to it that isn’t really applicable at West Chester’s Ice Line, whose four sheets are heavily used by everyone from age six to beer league, or even LUB’s FSI Shark Tank.
A slow start hurt the Bearcats, as the Lynx piled up the first ten shots of the contest, largely through All-American defenseman Gillis hammering Leasck from the left point. It was the Lynx forwards that opened the scoring four minutes into the game however, with Michaela Read and Dakota McAlpine punishing a tired McK unit by working to the front of the net from the left side, and McAlpine finishing on a second hack from the doorstep.
And for a while, a long while, that was it. McKendree gradually grew into the game, led by blueline trio Garrow, Delayne Ivanowski, and Kayla Waldbillig. They started to draw penalties and generate scoring chances, with Alyssa Albee and Juliana Davis getting more involved.
It’s a formula I’ve seen a million times, with at least a few of them coming from McKendree: a team doesn’t take full credit from an early surge, the opponent hangs in, stiffens as the game goes on, then gets a couple big ones late and wins the thing.
And for a long moment, even after Jessica Walker’s drive from the line made it 2-0 Lynx early in the third period, I thought that’s exactly what was happening. The game was getting increasingly physical (a second period hit by McK’s Brittany Koch on Hallie Fisher particularly irked Lange, who may have muttered the r-word after the game), and the special teams situation, even if it didn’t produce any goals, it was at least offering the sort of uncertainty that is the mortal enemy of any team ahead in a hockey game.
“We showed a lot of grit staying in the game and giving ourselves a chance against a very talented team,” Pallardy said.
Just over a minute after the Walker goal, with 14:12 remaining in the contest, Davis made a nice play in the neutral zone to turn the puck into the Lynx end, then assisting Hoadley in winning the puck out of the right corner.
“I was on the wall, then I won a battle, and I saw Billie in front of the net, number 22 Alyssa Albee,” Hoadley said, thankfully remembering at the last moment that I wasn’t on a nickname basis with Billie. “So I just shot it at the net, tried to go either five hole or far pad for Billie, and she shot it in.”
Thirty seconds later, big Lindenwood-Belleville rookie Kennedy Frank was hauled down from behind while cleanly in on goal, earning a penalty shot. And when she beat Leasck with a forehand-backhand move but pushed the puck wide to keep the score 2-1, I was convinced there was some magic in the building. McKendree was going to find a way to notch their latest big and somewhat unlikely victory.
Except they didn’t, because the thing about great teams is that they don’t just get one chance. A lesser team than either on the ice probably would’ve needed that penalty shot, but the 2019 runners-up didn’t. Defenseman Tessa O’Connor fired through from center point to make it 3-1 Lynx anyway moments later. In the space of less than three minutes, LUB had scored a backbreaking goal, withstood McKendree’s immediate pushback, and re-asserted their advantage. Through the chaos, chalk had emerged.
“That’s a really good team over there, they’re going to be in it at the end again like they were last year, our goal is to get there as well,” Pallardy said.
“It sucks to lose, but it wasn’t a terrible start to our season.”