NCAA: Ohio State Claims 2024 National Title Over Wisconsin in Thriller

Ohio State returned to championship glory on Sunday as they defeated Wisconsin in the NCAA national title game 1-0.

NCAA: Ohio State Claims 2024 National Title Over Wisconsin in Thriller
The Whittemore Center during the warmups before Sunday's NCAA title game between Ohio State and Wisconsin. Credit: Emma Sullivan

DURHAM, N.H. — For the second time in program history, The Ohio State University has captured the NCAA national title at the Division I/II level. 

It was a well matched, hard fought game between the two best teams in the country, as the Buckeyes took down WCHA rival and No. 2 nationally Wisconsin in an exact rematch of last year's title game.

This time though, OSU came out on top by a score of 1-0. 

“[It] seemed like a chess game, chess match at least for 55 or so minutes,” said Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson. 

It was a relatively quiet first, with both sides clogging up the slot and keeping the opposition out to the perimeter throughout 20 minutes. The standout for the Badgers was their ability to break up the play from the middle of the ice before clearing the puck back out to the perimeter. From there they were able to transition the play in the opposite direction to get their own opportunity time and time again. 

“We knew it was gonna be a tough challenge because they have so much offensive power,” said OSU head coach Nadine Muzerall.  “We focused really on their transition side of the game and not giving up odd man rushes in control in the neutral zone.”

On the opposite side, OSU looked to capitalize on the attempts they were able to get off. However, freshman netminder Ava McNaughton had a clear sightline to knock the pucks down, and was quick to cover the puck for a whistle when the Buckeyes were bearing down on her net. 

The second period, much like on Friday in their semifinal against Colgate, Wisconsin came out of the locker room on the back foot. The Buckeyes kept them hemmed in their own zone for much of the opening five minutes, and limited the Badgers to just two shots on goal by the nine minute mark.

Then came the loss of graduate student defender Hadley Hartmetz, a crucial turning point in the frame. After an awkward collision with Wisconsin’s Britta Curl behind the net, Hartmetz got her leg caught underneath and hit the boards hard. She had to be helped off the ice to the bench, and did not return for the rest of the matchup. 

In response to Hartmetz’s injury, the Buckeyes struggled to keep their game underneath them. The Badgers were all over the ice for the remainder of the period, and kept to their own offensive zone well into the third period as well. After having just two shots on goal in the first half of the frame, Wisconsin responded with eight in the second half, including a clear breakaway chance for Casey O’Brien. 

The senior forward couldn’t quite elevate the puck high enough to beat senior Raygan Kirk, who turned the puck away into the corner with her left pad to keep the score deadlocked at zero. 

Once again, the Buckeyes outskated the Badgers to start the period in the third. It took nearly four and a half minutes for Wisconsin to get a shot off. Meanwhile OSU had nine attempts in the same amount of time, including three that had to be blocked by Badgers in front of the net. 

Overall Wisconsin defensively were solid, much like they’ve been all year. All it took was one moment for the Buckeyes to capitalize and find the back of the net, but overall the blueline for Wisconsin stood tall, something sophomore defender Caroline Harvey made note of post game. 

“I feel like we were pretty solid for the most part,” she said. “We took away a lot of their time and space, we were trying to surf on them, gap up on them. It was just one breakdown, but we felt pretty confident in the group defensively today.” 

By the end of Sunday’s contest Wisconsin blocked a combined 20 shots. Across their three games in the tournament the team got in the way of a combined 60 , an average of 20 per game. 

But it was that one defensive lapse that ended up costing them in this one.

Graduate student defender Cayla Barnes made a brilliant play to backhand the puck off of Curl’s stick as the forward was rushing toward the OSU goal. Barnes then swooped the puck back up before connecting with fellow graduate student Hannah Bilka. A nice drop pass found its way to freshman sensation Joy Dunne at the faceoff circle, who fired the puck up and over McNaughton’s shoulder for the 1-0 lead. 

And the eventual national title. 

“Going back to when I made my decision to come to Ohio State, the goal was to win a national championship, to become a better player every day,” Dunne said on her winning goal. “And this team is so much of a family like I, like yes, I scored the goal, but there's so much in that game. Blocks. Great saves. It took the team, took a village. It took behind the scenes work, it took our Monday practices. It took everything.” 

The main reason the goal came to be was because of the original play by Barnes in the defensive zone. As a transfer coming into this season, Barnes was a crucial part of the OSU blue line as this play exemplifies, especially in a game where the Buckeyes had just five defenders for half of regulation after the Hartmetz injury. 

“She's a really good player, tough to get by,” Curl said, talking through the sequence. “She just made a good play. It was tough, she was kind of on my backside, [I] didn't really know where she was.”

In a single-goal game, a lot of it comes down to the netminders in either crease. Both of these goaltenders had their moments with brilliant saves to keep their teams in it. But the Buckeye in net was just the tiniest bit better – and to think she almost wasn’t here at all. 

Three years ago, in 2021, Raygan Kirk made 41 saves for Robert Morris in their NCAA semifinal loss just before their program was cut from the Division I level. On Sunday, she secured the national title after working her way from the third stringer position to the starting role on the team she transferred to following that defeat. 

“I think it's hard to put into words,” said Kirk on now being a two-time national champion. “I was saying, I’m in my gear, that was my last college hockey game and I think I need a moment before I take it all off. But just, yeah, like freshman year, I don't think I would believe that I would be sitting here today.”

Across the two games at the Frozen Four, the netminder allowed just one goal on 43 shots against, and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament for her efforts. 

“I'd like to give a lot of credit to [Kirk] because when we were recruiting her we knew of her value and how great she was,” Muzerall said of her netminder. “She was very interested in us and I had to be real with her and say, ‘hey, we have two goalies that fight for number one right now, you'd be coming in as three or four and if you want that position, it's fine, but you're gonna have to work for the number one spot.’ And she's done that so well over the past couple of years, and to win a title with a shutout just shows her character and commitment to persevere.” 

The 2023-24 season may have just ended for both of these two teams, but eyes are still on the next goal and the next chance at the national title. That’s what makes the teams at this level so special – the continued quest to come back better and stronger than the year before. 

For Wisconsin, the loss of the championship in such a close game is a moment that stings for the entire program. However, the youth and talent this team will be returning next season is deep, and they’re already looking toward the chance at the title once again. 

“I mean, definitely had a lot of bumps in the road personally and as a team this year, but I think it helped our group grow stronger,” Harvey said. “We’re definitely gonna use that going into next year. [I] wouldn't have wanted to have done it with any other group. [I’m] so proud of these girls and how far we've come and we’re hungry for next year already.”

For Ohio State, they’ll ride the joy of the championship win for some time. However, coach Muzerall knows that this is just the beginning as the university looks to continue cementing their spot in the women’s hockey record books. 

“Legacies, obviously take time,” she said. “Two [Championships] is fantastic, and I wanna push to obviously three and more. But it's gonna take continued time and effort and as long as me and my staff know, and the players don't get comfortable, because you don't wanna be part of history, you wanna continue to push and be the future as well.”