Bella Kang and Kaity McKenzie are freshmen on Cornell’s hockey team. Kang, a forward from the San Francisco Bay Area, and McKenzie, a goaltender from Minnesota, were there for every moment of the Big Red’s run to their first Frozen Four in seven years. The Ice Garden caught up with them after Cornell’s semifinal loss to Minnesota to discuss the ups and downs of their first year in college, as well as their future goals, both individual and team-oriented.
TIG: What was your first year at Cornell like?
BK: My first year at Cornell was a ton of fun. The team is great, everybody is super welcoming. It’s a special group. I don’t think you’ll find a group like this anywhere else.
KM: Another thing to add is there are not really classes, per se, people don’t treat us as freshmen. They just treat us as part of the team, which was very, very authentic, and really made us close-knit.
TIG: How have you found you’ve improved in hockey over the course of your first year in college?
BK: Just being with the team, you’re gonna get stronger and faster. There’s definitely a big gap, at least for me, between high school hockey and college hockey, just in terms of the overall physicality of it.
KM: It definitely took me a while to get used to the speed of the shots and the passes, especially on 2-on-0s or even 1-on-0s. How fast [players] release the puck is amazing. I grew up in Minnesota, so it’s pretty close, but [college] is definitely a lot faster mentally and physically.
TIG: Do you feel like you learned something about yourself in your freshman year?
BK: New roles, that’s for sure, because personally, I don’t play very much, and having to go from playing [for] two pretty highly competitive teams where you got to see the ice a lot and then having to switch all of a sudden, it really reveals a lot about yourself, how you take it, how you handle it. Of course, my team does everything they possibly can to make it easier for me. Honestly, you do it for your team, and them being who they are made it so much easier for me to show up every day and love being there and love practicing.
KM: Going from starting goalie to being a backup, it’s definitely hard, but this team makes you feel included no matter what role you’re in. I think everyone just loves coming to the rink no matter what.
TIG: You were on a great team this year and you made the Frozen Four. What has this whole experience been like for you guys?
BK: It’s been surreal, because you hear about it and you know, theoretically, how hard it’s supposed to be. But then your first time, to make it this far, it seems so atypical, and it’s really, really special, and it’s hard for us to actually recognize what an accomplishment it is. I know the seniors, who have tried every year and who have failed, and then finally to make it here, I’m sure they actually feel the significance a little bit different than we do, and we’re just trying to soak it all in and trying to be there in the moment, but it’s pretty cool.
KM: It’s actually crazy. We don’t really have anything else to compare it to. The seniors haven’t made it this far yet, so they’re super excited about it, obviously. We are super excited about it also, but it’s harder for us to take it all in because we haven’t gotten the chance to, like, not make it this far yet, so I think that’s a big thing.
TIG: Adding onto your point, do you think you’re going to feel any sort of pressure to make it back, at least next year, and then through the rest of your college career?
BK: Next year, for sure I feel like there’s gonna be a lot of pressure because we have a really good junior class. Our junior class is unreal. There are a lot of really strong players, like Kristin O’Neill, Jaime [Bourbonnais], P [Paige Lewis], Grace [Graham], and Micah [Zandee-Hart], even though she’s still considered kind of a senior. I know for sure next year there’s gonna be a lot of pressure on us to make it at least this far, and then in terms of the years beyond that, it really depends on the incoming classes. But for the immediate future, yeah.
KM: I would say for sure, especially our senior year, knowing what it feels like to make it this far, I think there’s a lot of pressure, saying, “We want to get back here again, especially if it’s our last year,” and then I’d definitely say next year is a huge year for us.
TIG: What do you think the goals are for the rest of your college career? You have three years left in Ithaca, and this has already been such a high moment. What do you have in store for the next three years, and what do you want to get better at?
BK: For me, it’s just personal improvement. I just want to be the best hockey player I can possibly be. I know that’s a very bland, vanilla answer, but honestly sometimes, it’s the simplest answer that’s the most true. In terms of academics, just keep going at it. Being a college athlete in terms of time management is much more difficult than anything I’ve previously encountered. I didn’t realize how much time that [we] would be at the rink as a team, but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way, it’s a lifestyle and I love it.
KM: I want to at least start a couple games. I’ve definitely been pushing myself, I know that, and I just can’t wait to have my name announced, and hopefully it will be, and if it’s not, I’m totally fine with that too, because I’m on a team that I love—the girls, the coaches, the atmosphere—but I’m really hoping I’ll get my name called one of these days.