When Terry and Kim Pegula gifted Penn State University $88 million, the intentions were made clear. The establishment of a Division-I men’s ice hockey program was the headliner, but a women’s hockey program was no less important to the Pegulas.
As that historic gift climbed over $100 million, historic seasons quickly became commonplace at the arena which bears the beneficiaries’ name. Such seasons were weighted heavily to the men’s program, however.
Now, with Guy Gadowsky’s squad nearing the end of a rebuilding/retooling/whatever adjective best applies season, the spotlight shines on Jeff Kampersal and the women’s program.
Having just completed a remarkable regular season with a 16-2-2 record, the Nittany Lions now turn their attention to the CHA Tournament. By virtue of winning the conference’s regular season title — their first in program history — the Nittany Lions hold the No. 1 seed.
Barring any chaos, the Nittany Lions will claim that title and with it, earn an automatic berth to their first NCAA Tournament.
At face value, Penn State’s historic and utterly dominant season appears rather sudden and unexpected. The Nittany Lions had just one winning season out of their first eight as a Division-I program, when they went 17-16-4 in 2014-15, and had finished no higher than third in the conference.
The tide began to turn when Jeff Kampersal, one of the winningest coaches in NCAA women’s hockey history, was named head coach prior to the 2017-18 season.
Prior to joining the Nittany Lions, Kampersal spent 21 seasons behind the bench with, fittingly, Princeton’s women’s program, accumulating 327 wins, a pair of Ivy League Championships and a handful of Coach of the Year accolades.
His impact on the program has been nothing short of profound.
It also helps to have an elite freshman class to complement an established core.
Kampersal helped bring a defensive acumen to the Nittany Lions. In the season prior to his hire, the Nittany Lions yielded 104 goals. They immediately slashed that total by almost half and have come nowhere close to that 2016-17 total since.
This season has been their most impressive, as the Nittany Lions allowed just 27 goals in 20 games, extrapolated to roughly 49 goals over a full season’s pace.
That commitment while not in possession of the puck allowed goaltender Josie Bothun to claim CHA Goaltender of the Year honors this season. Bothun started each game for the Nittany Lions, setting a program record for wins in a season with 16 and leading the conference in goals-against average and save percentage.
The individual accolades didn’t end in goal, however. Kiara Zanon took home CHA Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors after leading the conference with 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists). She was also named a finalist — the only underclassman — for the Patty Kamaier Memorial Award, given to the nation’s top women’s hockey player.
Natalie Heising and Jessica Adolfsson joined the two on the All-CHA first team. Izzy Heminger was named to the All-CHA second team, while Olivia Wallin and Lyndie Lobdell joined Bothun and Zanon on the CHA All-Rookie team.
To cap it off, Kampersal claimed another conference coach of the year honor.
The individual accolades are something to marvel at. The team success, perhaps even more so. Now, with a semifinal showdown against Syracuse on the horizon, the Nittany Lions will look to expand this historic season.
This will be the fourth straight season the Nittany Lions have reached the semifinal of the CHA Tournament. A trip to the championship game has eluded them the previous three seasons.
While the Nittany Lions are poised to put an end to that curse, a grain of sand, however microscopic, is to be had with this semifinal matchup. Though they finished 17 points back of the Nittany Lions in the conference table, the Orange fared better against the Nittany Lions than any other CHA opponent.
The Orange took the final game of their regular season series back on Dec. 12. Following that loss, the Nittany Lions went on a 13-game undefeated run before dropping their regular season finale in overtime to Mercyhurst.