Midland at Lindenwood-Belleville
FSI Shark Tank
St. Louis, MO
January 25, 2020
“We do not record flowers,” said the geographer.
“Why is that? The flower is the most beautiful thing on my planet!”
“We do not record them,” said the geographer, “because they are ephemeral.”Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince
Abby Flaherty stood in a doorway at one end of the ice surface waiting for her name to be called, for Lindenwood-Belleville’s senior ceremony to begin, and reflected on her career and the classmates in line to follow her.
“Honestly, it has been an honor,” she said. We came in as a class of 12, and we ended up with five, and for me, it’s the best four girls I could’ve ended with. That’s something that I will always greatly appreciate.”
While LUB assistant sports information director Johnny Lange read Flaherty’s essentials over the public address – number five; Orland Park, Illinois; BS in athletic training – she skated over to the Lynx bench to meet her parents and a bouquet, posed for a picture, headed over near the penalty boxes and head coach Andrew Miller, posed for another picture, accepted a three-ring binder filled with photos and memories offered by her teammates, then finally moved on to the blue line.
Jamie Riselay, an Ontario native and half of one of the ACHA’s best defense pairings, went next, tracing Flaherty’s path and ending up next to her. Then came a couple of IIHF veterans in speedy Alicia Williams, a member of the 2019 US National University Team, and Kate Tihema, who competes for the national team of her native Australia.
And that’s Senior Day. Every year, before one of their final home events of the season, thousands of college sports teams present their outgoing classes, which stand on the precipice of the real world, ready to go pro in something other than sports, as that old NCAA commercial said (save for Flaherty and her fellow athletic training majors, along with the budding coaches, I suppose). The specifics can vary a little from school to school and from sport to sport, but the broad strokes are pretty much universal: families, flowers, the celebration of a race well run, and a look ahead to the future. And, universe willing, a win.
As Winnipeg-native creative writing student Nikki Lillies and a bunch of group photos wrapped up the parade, I couldn’t help thinking that there were 34 players missing from the tribute, the number who wore the Lynx jersey prior to the 28 on the current roster.
Or, more to the point, the only others who ever will get to wear that particular breed of maroon and black wildcat, once Lindenwood completes a restructuring of its system that will end undergraduate degree programs and athletics at its Belleville, Illinois location after the 2019-20 academic year. In some sense, it’s their Senior Day too.
To fully understand the dynamics in play at Lindenwood, it’s important to understand a few things about the Belleville campus. The first, I suppose, is that it actually is a campus, despite its 2003 beginnings in the former location of Belleville West High School. The 1920s vintage – and gorgeous – high school building is its centerpiece, sure, but over the past couple decades it has grown into something greater. There are new-ish dorm buildings and a student center, there’s a complement of athletic facilities including a football field with maroon-and-gray-striped turf that’s either fun or tacky depending on taste, and there are attractive outdoor spaces that include several art installations. It’s a small campus, but a very nice one, and part of the agony of the situation is that it probably won’t be fully utilized after this year. Or seen in daylight for that matter, should the place be limited to night classes.
LUB isn’t what many would consider a typical satellite, in that it stands apart from the better-known location in St. Charles, Missouri both physically (it is, technically, in a different state after all) and culturally. A student-athlete at, say, Michigan-Dearborn might be able to play a hockey game against the flagship campus in Ann Arbor, then show up at the Big House the next day to root for its football team, but it doesn’t really work like that at Lindenwood. Belleville is its own ecosystem; it has its own logo, colors, and nickname, and even gained its own accreditation in 2011. On the best days, Belleville looked across the Mississippi River with a grudging tolerance of its sister. On other days, particularly the more recent ones, the blood has run a little hotter.
“At least in my experience, St. Charles and I were irrelevant to each other,” former Lynx forward Maddy Millar, a 2018 graduate, said. “Belleville was very much its own community and offered very different experiences in student life and athletics from St. Charles. However, big picture, Belleville and St. Charles were more connected than people could see from the outside, if that makes sense. As a student, the only way Belleville was connected to St. Charles was on paper.”
Nevertheless, despite the points of separation and as Millar observed, most administrative decisions continued to be made in St. Charles, and when Belleville’s fate was announced last May, strategically timed at the end of the year to minimize backlash, it was a metaphorical neutron bomb for its 2,000 students. The immediate fallout included the men’s hockey team, which had a mostly-successful five-season run but was seen as redundant with the ACHA offerings in St. Charles, as the Lions have men’s teams in Divisions 1 and 2. Most Lynx squads, including women’s hockey, were given a stay through 2019-20, leaving one last season to play against the future, against endings and those who declare them, and maybe even against time itself.
It’s hard to read a Senior Day game sometimes. Sure, there’s plenty of emotion since teams want to send their soon-to-be-graduates out on a high note, particularly in this case. But there’s also a lot of standing around in full uniform, and it can often be hard to recapture the tempo of pulsating dryland music with that much downtime, resulting in an intensity level approximating that of the NHL’s All-Star Game happening simultaneously in downtown St. Louis. So when Midland came out and earned the better of the play for most of the first period, helped by a couple power plays, it was a little concerning, but not entirely shocking.
That all ended when the Lynx got their own shot on the advantage late in the frame, and Jess Walker made a nice play to keep the puck in at the right point. Two cross-ice passes later, Mackenzie Drost converted to give the hosts the lead and lift the burden of expectation. Early in the second period, immediately following LUB’s successful kill of a Rayel Strayer cross checking call, Michaela Read astutely heaved the puck up ice for Kennedy Frank. Frank, who had just stepped on in place of Strayer, was nevertheless well behind the Warriors’ defense and calmly deposited the resulting breakaway.
If you’re keeping track for some reason, the Lynx were 3-for-3 on the penalty kill at that point (while scoring directly because of the most recent effort) and had hit on their only power play – a quintessential instance of a contest pivoting on special teams.
“I think the energy picked up as the game went on and they started pressing,” Williams said. “We kind of got our stuff together and collectively came together as a group to push on for the seniors, and everyone just kind of came together as a family.”
Things seemed kind of academic from there. Second-ranked LUB was unharmed by Midland’s best punch, then had done damage in retaliation, a formula that almost never ends well for the underdog. While a robust crowd dominated by the school’s rugby and softball teams mercilessly heckled the Warriors (particularly defender Ally Conybear), their friends on the ice piled on in their own way. Later in the second period, Read walked Sydney Spicer’s offensive faceoff win to the slot off of the right wall and fired through. Megan Norris and Dakota McAlpine added goals in the third period to round out a 5-0 victory that might look a little better on a gamesheet than it did as it played out.
The idea that a 5-0 win over a top-ten opponent could be considered kind of rough around the edges might owe its existence to the pressures of the situation. But mostly, it’s is a testament to the type of program Lindenwood-Belleville has built in a very short time.
LUB began play in 2014-15, clocking a decent-enough first season, one punctuated by a stunning 2-1 upset of eventual national champion Liberty on January 30, 2015. New Zealand national team netminder Firth Bidois denied all 53 Flames shots she saw over the final two periods, while the Lynx literally only managed one attempt on the opposite goal during those 40 minutes: Jaylene Anderson’s winning goal with 5:44 remaining. Things really began to fall into place the following year though, when a ridiculously good bit of timing and sheer luck resulted in legendary ACHA player Kat Hannah – who has her number six retired by the now-NCAA team over in St. Charles – returning to her alma mater’s system as head coach.
“My really good friend CJ randomly sent me the link like ‘oh, your old job is hiring,’” Hannah explained. “[At that point], I owned a house, and I was raising a kid in a relationship for a really long time, and it wasn’t going well. And I applied for the job, took charge of my life I guess, I was shocked that they called me back, and they wanted me to come, like, right away. So I packed up my 4Runner, and out to Belleville, Illinois I went.”
“I was living on the east coast, I literally drove into Belleville, Illinois, pulled into a Kentucky Fried Chicken and started to cry because I wasn’t sure that I made the right decision. But it was absolutely the right decision, and I will not regret anything that I did, it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my entire life.”
Hannah, who didn’t have any coaching experience prior to the LUB job, largely had to feel her way through the early stages of the very large task at hand. She inherited a good talent base including Bidois, perpetual linemates Millar and Blake Fuller, sniper Ashley Dietmeier, NCAA Division III transfer Hayley Winker, and six-foot Alaskan Alahna Stivers, but needed to quickly add to it while also establishing the team’s identity and culture. Part of the latter goal was accomplished by setting up a permanent home base in the FSI Shark Tank (after splitting time between rinks early on), a quirky facility 30 miles from campus, one quite literally plopped in some extra warehouse space not needed by the neighboring flooring company.
“I am absolutely frigging nuts when it comes to recruiting and competitiveness and culture and travel and experience and all of those things, and I believe that we all have all of those things. When I first took the job, I didn’t have a damn idea of what I was doing,” Hannah said. “I reached out to every resource I know. I followed up on everything. There wasn’t a single email where a kid reached out to me that I did not respond to.”
That zest for finding players from any corner of the globe led to the early Lynx teams uniquely featuring not only Americans and Canadians, but also three southern hemisphere national teamers in New Zealand’s Bidois, along with Australia’s Tihema and Michelle Coonan. But that United Nations approach was only part of the program’s identity.
“We get what we tolerate,” Hannah added. “Hockey is a place that’s supposed to be safe and fun and supportive and challenging and sometimes hard and sometimes beautiful and all of these things, and I talk to the girls about that. And we challenge each other, we hold each other accountable, and I let them be a part of designing what they want to see in a team.”
“I want the type of girl where, if you throw your garbage in the can and you miss it, that you’re not the type of person to say ‘ah, screw it’ and just leave it there. You’re the type of person where it’s going to bother you if you don’t go back and pick it up. Culture really just is about holding each other accountable, knowing what your direction is, then fighting for that direction and doing it together, that’s the bottom line, and that’s what we did.”
Almost immediately, that process started to produce rewards. Those included a series at perennial contender Miami during Hannah’s first season – a blowout loss followed by some overnight coaching and a one-goal loss – that she cited as a moment of clarity for seeing the program’s potential, along with the types of athletes and families who started to become interested in what LUB had to offer. More tangibly, 2015-16 represented a breakthrough season for the Lynx, ending with a WWCHL title game victory over Colorado and a first-ever trip to the ACHA National Tournament, the latter championship run including narrow defeats to Liberty and eventual runner-up Grand Valley State.
“I’ll speak for myself on this but I’m pretty confident I can speak for the whole team when I say Kat Hannah was the reason [for the team’s steady improvement],” Millar said. “I remember the very first practice she came to everyone, without hesitation or question, just responded to her and she brought out this fire in us that none of us knew we had. She made us fall more in love with the game and gave us a real reason to compete and prove ourselves and our little school that wasn’t on the map.”
“Hockey has always been my passion but she found a way to make it everyone’s favorite thing to do and made us crave it when we had a few days off. From then on, our culture became extremely strong, unique and tight knit. We all played for each other. That year is when we all truly became family, and since then we all kept growing stronger, with the odd bump in the road.”
As the squad’s ranking continued to increase over the next couple seasons, from 16 to 6, then to 5, then to 4, so did its expectations. However, the next two trips to nationals both resulted in quarterfinal exits – the first, against UMass, coming in spite of starting with a 1-0 best-of three series lead after the Minutemen missed the opening contest due to a snowstorm, although 2018’s defeat to Miami was arguably a more bitter pill to swallow for a senior-heavy team that saw itself as championship-ready.
A refreshed roster, by then featuring Williams and Marissa Delry down the middle, Lindsay Gillis on defense, and Hannah Stone in net, along with an upgraded schedule, finally crashed through the first-round barrier after a 19-4-3 regular season in 2018-19, holding off GVSU’s upset bid on Dietmeier’s game three overtime goal, then taking down a strong Adrian team in the semifinals. While things wound up one win short after a defeat to Liberty in the final, there was no reason to think that the Lynx weren’t on the cusp of cashing in a title within the next few seasons. Or titles.
Then…disaster, playing out over a hectic 48-hour period eight months ago and producing the sort of jolting breaking news not often seen in the ACHA, at least not in real time. The team in its current form: gone. The school itself: gone. Hannah: also gone, after making a principled stand trying to protect the program and its student-athletes, a decision she describes as “forever leaving a hole in [her] heart.”
Six years. It’s about half of the time it takes to become a doctor. A few types of insects have longer lifespans. In relevant terms, Dietmeier played out her full eligibility in Belleville and was a part of the roster for every Lynx season until this one.
Six years is not much time.
To be sure, LUB isn’t the first ACHA program with a mere blip of an existence, nor will it be the last. Plenty of teams start up with the best of intentions, then fizzle out after a couple seasons when they can’t drum up enough interest to keep going, to cite one common scenario. But the Lynx may be the most tragic of the group, thanks to their success level with a consistent, upward trajectory, only to be abruptly cut off by outside forces – they didn’t fail, they were failed – just as they approached the pinnacle. That, of course, leaves only this season to win the biggest trophy before the transition to St. Charles throws everything into a pool of uncertainty.
“We gotta leave it all out on the ice,” Flaherty said. “It’s our last year, and you know, we have the saying ‘#lastlynx,’ I think that’s something that we really need to live by, and just keep it going, make our impact.”
It also creates a little bit of a special feeling in those lucky few who were able to wear the Lynx colors while helping to build what they represent, along with that urgency to leave things on the proper terms, to get that metaphorical Senior Day win for all who have been a part of the program before everyone, and everything, moves on to somewhere else.
“It’s honestly one of those feelings you can’t describe, because part of it is so special and part of it is so disappointing,” Millar said. “It’s really cool to be able to say that I played for a college hockey team for pretty much its entire existence, that’s for sure.”
“On the other end, I wish it would have continued and given more girls the amazing opportunity I got by going there and being a Lynx. It was remarkable, challenging and life changing. It’s too bad that legacy couldn’t live on and I won’t be able to watch the program grow even more than it already has in such a short time.”
“It’s really awesome, and really special,” Hannah said. “I hold the Lynx gear very close to my heart because of that, because it’s like special stuff. There are only certain people that it will have ever really existed to. I tell the girls that. It’s [also] nice to continue and watch the girls grow into adults and take on the world and be successful. And you want to visit and talk, and follow up, and travel, and be curious and share things. That’s what it’s all about man, I’ve been humbled in that.”
“It’s great to have been a part of a group where we’ve shaped our own culture,” Williams added. “We’ve made what we have here with our past coach, and now the older girls have taken the initiative, and we’ve kind of taken the reins, and guided our freshmen, and helped everybody.”
“This is the first year we’ve collectively come together as a group without having Kat here, without having [former assistant coach Kaitlyn Johnson] here, we’re kind of like ‘this is our ship, and we’re in control of where we’re going with it.’”
While the Lynx have occasionally seemed a bit off center this season, understandably so given the upheaval, most of the time they’ve had the look of a team that is fully capable of realizing their very-openly-stated goal at the end of the year, including winning two of three meetings with Liberty, along with an early sweep of the ACHA’s other 2019-20 top-three regular, Minot State.
As Jake Taylor told his teammates in Major League after finding out that his fictional version of the Cleveland Indians was doomed, there’s only one thing left to do.
And if they pull that thing off?
“That would be amazing,” Williams admitted. “Obviously that is the end goal, and that is something that I know is in everybody’s heads, not just mine, not just in the seniors, not just in the juniors, it’s in the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, like… we want to show up next year at Lindenwood St. Charles with a ring on our new ice, being honored at the Centene [Community Ice Center] in front of the NCAA program. We want to show them why we deserve to have a program.”
“I think it would kind of be like a good ‘hey, take us seriously,’” Flaherty said. “Because it’s like, you know, we have St. Charles, and it feels like they kind of look down on us. And we have these teams that are like ‘oh your school’s closing.’”
“And yeah, our school’s closing, but we still got a ring.”