Tara's Take: Representing Your College on the National Stage

By: Tara Wheeler
By: Tara Wheeler

All this March Madness has made me think back to my time playing ice hockey at Penn State... and the surprising memories that stand out in my mind from our two trips to the national tournament.

"March Madness" (or "March SADness as Marc Davis likes to call it due to everyone's busted brackets) has brought us countless exciting games and has everyone in town rooting for the underdog VCU Rams (I'm pulling for VCU and UK in the championship game!). This weekend, college hoops will consume the country and afterwards hockey fans will look to the ice for hockey's version: The Frozen Four. For any athlete, representing their school on the national level is an unforgettable experience. I played college puck for Penn State and, though we were ACHA Division I and not as elite as NCAA Division I, I'd still like to share with you my experience playing in the ACHA national tournament....

When I was deciding on where I wanted to go to college, hockey was an important factor. I wanted to find a program where I would be challenged and be able to develop; that was competitive but still gave me enough free time to have a college experience. I found exactly what I was looking for at Penn State. PSU is part of the American Collegiate Hockey Association and their Lady Icers program is Division I. It's not as high a level as NCAA D-I but we still played several NCAA D-III teams and held our own, so the league was a good medium balance for me. (Important side note: Penn State will be moving to NCAA D I in 2012!)

My freshman and sophomore years with the program, our team made it to the national tournament. Both years the big event was held in Michigan. In 2003 we competed in Muskegon and in 2004, East Lansing. Everyone on my team had a superlative and fairly quickly I became known as the kid who would fall asleep on the bus before we even left the parking lot. This special skill was especially useful for our team's 8-10 hour road trips. I remember passing out on the bus at our home rink in State College, PA and being confused when a teammate woke me up for a pit-stop at McDonald's. I didn't understand why there was Red Wings memorabilia all over the restaurant and was pumped out of my mind to hear we were already in Michigan and I had managed to sleep the whole way. It felt like I had just closed my eyes a minute ago!

Once we arrived at the tournament, we were on the ice several times a day. Maybe it's because I'm a goalie and goalies have strange mental states to deal with stress, but every game was a blur. I couldn't tell you who scored or describe the highlight reel, but I can tell you what song was stuck in my head. To keep myself from over-thinking during games, I would sing songs... sometimes out loud. This little trick kept me relying on reflexes instead of letting the intense game situation psych me out. Goalies are weird. Anyway, the Beatles classic "Hard Days Night" was lodged in my brain for the entire tournament my freshman year (we finished in 8th place and I was named to the All-Tournament Second Team along with our team's captain, Katie King). My sophomore year, we moved up a spot to 7th in the nation... that year I kept it current with the Daniel Bedingfields "Gotta Get thru This".  Don't judge me.

Something else I remember vividly was how bad we all smelled. The showers in our hotel in 2004 were awful. It was like someone pouring a Dixie Cup of water over your head; it just didn't get the job done. But we were playing hockey all day long so it didn't matter how we looked or smelled... until I got a call from my boyfriend saying he and his buddies were thinking about making a road trip to cheer us on. As sweet as that was, I promptly shot the idea down.

It's funny how these silly circumstances stand out in my head when I think back about playing in the national tournament. For me, the highlights weren't how we ranked, a big save, or a teammates game-winning goal, but rather the feelings and emotions from that week. What sticks with me most is how much I loved my teammates and how great it felt to be a part of something so much bigger than myself. Our whole team had worked all year long and I was proud to be a cog in the well-oiled machine, working hard for the Lady Icers and for my school and representing the growth of women's ice hockey. Hockey is just starting to catch on here in Charlottesville and I've had more than a hand full of people exclaim to me: "Wait, girls play hockey?". Yes we do. And I look back and smile at my two trips to the national stage where hockey was all I had to worry about.

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