Introduction

California (PA) at Pittsburgh
Baierl Ice Complex
Warrendale, PA

February 3, 2018

Katie Pucci was under siege.

That fact alone was somewhat surprising. Her University of Pittsburgh team had taken a 2-0 lead in the first period against a California (PA) team that dressed just eight skaters and a goalie on that Saturday evening. And while the scoreline lingered at the cliched “worst lead in hockey” well into the third period, it looked for all the world as if Pitt would cruise to the finish line with an unspectacular, but expected, victory. Cal, as teams with fewer than ten players often must, would still be able to muster some sort of growth takeaway or moral victory from a relatively tight outcome. Or, failing that, at least it wasn’t a long trip home.

There’s no such thing as a bad day at the rink, of course, but it would have been a routine one – had the status quo held.

Instead, the Vulcans’ Jayda Mears, the team’s undisputed best player, started to find some seams that were likely part late-game fatigue and part complacency. The local native, who had cut her teeth with the Steel City Selects youth program, took advantage of two of them to score her 32nd and 33rd goals of the 2017-18 season roughly seven minutes apart. Pitt’s Lindsay Gorman connected between the two Mears goals to keep her squad ahead, but make no mistake: Cal was coming on, and every player on the short visiting bench was emptying whatever they had left in the tank with five minutes remaining to pull off an upset.

As the Vulcans pressed, the assembled crowd – maybe a hundred or so – watched intently. Me? I did the exact opposite, and squinted until my vision became blurry enough to melt years together. Because while this situation may have been lightly-charted territory for Katie Pucci, it was not for Katie Vaughan.

I’m not sure whether it was five seconds, or a minute, or more, but I let myself drift to another game in another season and another state, specifically, the 2014 ACHA Division 2 national semifinal between the Vulcans and a Penn State team backstopped by Vaughan, then an unmarried engineering undergraduate.

PSU and Cal, as the keystone geography might suggest, were bitter rivals, albeit briefly. The teams split four 2013-14 regular-season meetings, with Penn State taking the regular season title of their shared conference, College Hockey East, thanks to a 6-0-2 record against the rest of the league, compared to the Vulcans’ 6-1-1. The final PSU-Cal regular season series, bridging January and February, was an explosive one: during the first game, Cal’s Dana Bowersox took a run from behind at Nittany Lions defender Tara Soukup during a pileup in front of Vaughan. The two came to blows, and both received fighting majors and game misconducts, but Soukup got an extra major for facemasking. The Vulcans scored twice during the resulting advantage en route to a 5-2 win.

The home team, however, rallied the next day for a 3-1 win to clinch the regular season title. Elizabeth Denis, once an NCAA Division I player at Brown, but attending Penn State to earn her geosciences Ph.D., scored 52 seconds into the game to set the tone, and Vaughan’s 30 saves did most of the rest.

Appropriately enough though, the teams wound up splitting CHE titles, as Cal took the conference’s playoff championship game 2-1 a couple weeks later in what would qualify as a forgettable game, if it was played in November and out of the sight of the league’s cartoonishly large trophy.

Of course, the silver lining to the defeat, from Penn State’s point of view, is that nobody really cares what happens in the conference if you can manage to win a national championship, and PSU was still one of the favorites to do exactly that, if they could navigate through – surprise! – Cal in the ACHA semifinals, played on March 15th in the University of Delaware’s Fred Rust Ice Arena. That contest largely followed the same script as Pitt-Cal four years later, as PSU star Devon Fisk scored twice early on, and the Vulcans’ Kelsey DeNardo answered with one to set up yet another tight finish between the teams.

Penn State delivered a suffocating roster-wide closeout effort to get the last laugh against their nemesis and advance to the championship game, so it would be wrong to give Vaughan the full share of the credit, but she nevertheless was asked to stand tall through some hairy moments. “Hairy” is a term of some subjectivity of course, just ask Vaughan’s mother Kim, who was standing next to me that day and bellowing “GET IT OUT OF THERE!” whenever the puck ventured below the dots in the PSU zone. But some of the moments required objective greatness.

Midway through the third period, DeNardo worked the puck to the front of the net through heavy traffic, but Vaughan’s glove beat the mass of bodies to the rubber disc. Moments later, Bowersox won a faceoff and rifled a surprisingly quick backhand on, but Vaughan was again up to the task.

She was unflappable, an essential trait for a goalie (she probably didn’t get that from her mom), but her work wasn’t quite done yet. On a delayed call to Nittany Lions captain Carly Szyszko late in the third period, a bouncing puck to the front dangerously wound up on DeNardo’s stick on the back side, requiring Vaughan to stretch across with her right pad to make another vital stop. During the penalty, Megan Cooper found Bowersox driving the middle with a centering feed, only for Vaughan to make another routine-yet-difficult save. That Bowersox try wound up being the last the Vulcans would manage as PSU held on for the win.

While the parallels between Katie Vaughan in 2014 and Katie Pucci in 2018 were bluntly obvious, I wasn’t done daydreaming just yet. I squinted a little harder and went back a few more months, to December of 2013.

That winter, Vaughan had been selected for the U.S. National University Team, which competed at the World University Games tournament in Trentino, Italy. The games (generally called “Universiade” outside of North America) are sort of a biennial Olympics solely for college student-athletes. Its hockey tournament is something of an oddity in the sport, in that the different participating countries demonstrate wildly varying degrees of investment. The U.S. is on the lower end of that scale, and rather than send NCAA Division I players, the accepted best eligible, USA Hockey allows the ACHA to assemble an all-star team for the tournament (the alternative, for a couple decades prior to 2001 when the arrangement began, was no team in the tournament at all, so it is mutually beneficial to some extent).

Russia, Team USA’s opponent to open the tournament, is towards the opposite end.  While never a carbon copy of the country’s senior national team, the Russians do typically include several of their best on the squad. Taking the crease opposite Vaughan, for example, was Anna Prugova, who had already represented Russia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and would do so again a couple months later in Sochi, around the same time Vaughan was battling Cal for the CHE titles.

And on Tuesday, December 10, 2013, that Division 2 club hockey goalie was better than an Olympian, stopping 33 of 35 shots as the U.S. stunned Russia 4-2.

A fluke? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Eight days later, Vaughan arguably outplayed Prugova again in the semifinals, but Russia emerged with a 3-2 shootout win that time around. The U.S. recovered to beat Japan (a country that largely sends its full national team to World University Games) two days later to earn bronze medals – the first-ever podium finish for any American team in the modern era of the tournament. Vaughan played a massive role in the last contest as well, stopping 37 of 38 Japanese shots, including the final 31.

That June, she was named USA Hockey’s Adult Player of the Year, an award presented at the governing body’s annual congress. Among the others taking the stage to receive their own awards: Hilary Knight, Johnny Gaudreau, and legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker. Not a big deal, right?

As I snapped back into the present, I wondered how many people watching Katie Pucci close out Cal knew about Katie Vaughan doing the same thing four years earlier. Or about her scaling even bigger mountains that same season. Katie’s husband and parents were present, so I certainly wasn’t the sole keeper of that information, but I still concluded that few were aware of just how noteworthy their bespectacled grad student netminder actually was.

From there, I took note of the limitations in my own knowledge. Sure, I pay closer attention to ACHA women’s hockey than most people. But still, to a large extent, I only know what I’ve presented here because I know Katie, and because I worked for her Penn State team for five years. And while she had an extraordinary career, surely there are other stories to be told, ones that have been outside of my sphere of observation to this point.

Then I thought about Cal. Their journey to February 3, 2018 certainly hadn’t been smooth sailing. After dropping that 2014 semifinal to PSU (and after a heroic effort to eliminate pointless third place games by ending theirs early with an altercation the next day), the Vulcans put together solid seasons in 2014-15 and 2015-16 and made two more trips to nationals, although they didn’t escape the pool round either time. They had much larger problems than tournament elimination on the horizon, however.

In 2016, most of the core of the team – DeNardo, Cooper, Bowersox, goalie Maria Sciacca, and standout defender Margo Laboon included – graduated. And thanks in part to heavy coaching turnover, along with the effort needed to constantly stock the cupboards in college sports, the Vulcans were stuck with nobody to replace them. The program went on hiatus for the 2016-17 season and, to their credit, beat the odds (anyone who has followed minor league sports is likely aware that “hiatus” rarely ends well) by returning in 2017-18, although with the aforementioned short bench. Suddenly, the former alpha dog found itself losing by nine to Buffalo in each of their two games prior to facing Pitt, as UB had used Cal’s stumble to help itself become the new queen of the CHE. No matter how good you are, it’s always temporary, isn’t it?

Those thoughts were interrupted by a buzzer, and Pitt gathering around their victorious goaltender before heading to center ice for the handshake. The game was over.

Time to find another one.