This is the third and final installment of our series examining the best freshman performances from the 2018-19 NCAA season. This time around we’re doing things a little bit differently. Instead of highlighting three players, we’re breaking down the seasons of five players to give you even more college hockey content.
- Part 1 | Sarah Fillier, Maggie Connors, and Alina Müller.
- Part 2 | Gabbie Hughes, Cayla Barnes, and Lindsay Reed/
Sophie Shirley | Wisconsin
There were a lot of eyes on Sophie Shirley this year. The 5-foot-9 forward garnered a lot of attention when she delayed her collegiate career to play with the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno. It was an opportunity that she felt was too good to pass up and the Inferno were definitely happy to have her. Shirley earned honors as the CWHL’s 2018 Rookie of the Year by scoring eight goals and notching 11 assists in 26 games.
After proving herself on the professional stage, she laced up her skates in October for her freshman season with the Badgers. And it’s safe to say that the University of Wisconsin was happy to have her, too.
Wisconsin won the National Championship thanks to an absolutely stacked roster headlined by Annie Pankowski. It would have been easy for a freshman — even one of Shirley’s caliber — to get lost in the shuffle this year, but she didn’t. She was named the WCHA Rookie of the Year after scoring 20 goals and registering 18 assists in 41 games. It was the 10th best season by a Badgers rookie in terms of production in program history.
The Badgers’ juniors and seniors — namely Pankowksi, Emily Clark, Abby Roque, and defender Mekenzie Steffen — played a bigger role on special teams than Shirley and fellow freshman standout Britta Curl. As a result, she finished the season with a modest five points on the power play.
As you might have guessed by now, she made her mark at even strength. Shirley notched 33 of her 38 points at evens — 18 of which were goals. Furthermore, her +36 plus/minus rating was the best in the nation among freshmen skaters. It’s safe to say that good things happened for the Badgers when Shirley was on the ice.
It would be misleading to suggest that Shirley had a great year because she played for a great team when she was one of the players who made the Badgers great. Her size and easy grace with the puck on her stick made her one of just the most dangerous wingers in the nation.
Tanner Gates | Colgate
Tanner Gates is definitely one of the most intriguing players featured in this series. Gates led all freshman D in power play goals (5) and power play points (11), yet finished the year with only 55 shots on net. With a ratio like that, it’s only natural to wonder if her production was dependent on Colgate’s power play and/or the product of good puck luck. But there’s more to the story of Gates’ freshman season than a 12.7 shooting percentage.
To get an idea of what kind of player Gates really is, you need to watch more than just one Red Raiders game or a highlight or two. Her motor and ability to smoothly transition from defense to offense makes her an exceptionally good puck-carrying defenseman. She shows a lot of composure with the puck on her stick and has no qualms carrying it deep into the offensive zone. Maybe that’s a trick she picked up from playing lacrosse.
Gates definitely thought “pass first” this year, but who can blame her? She played on a team with seniors like Jessie Eldridge, Shae Labbe, Bailey Larson, and Olivia Zafuto — all of whom eclipsed the 100-shot mark this year. The California-native finished second among Raiders defenders in scoring and led all Colgate freshman in scoring, an impressive feat with four freshman forwards in the lineup for all 38 games this year.
7 goals, 15 assists, leading the nation in scoring by a rookie defensemen; congratulations to Tanner Gates on being named to the #ECACHockey All-Rookie Team ‼️ #GoGate #WePlayFree pic.twitter.com/82UHiYClt2— Colgate Women’s Hockey (@ColgateWIH) March 7, 2019
Gates received a nod as a finalist for the ECAC Rookie of the Year and was named to the ECAC All-Rookie Team for her exceptional two-way play. Next sophomore season will be a big test because of the seniors that have left the program. Zafuto will be a tough act to follow, but Gates has already shown a lot of potential and she made big strides as the season went along.
Sophie Jaques | Ohio State University
This year Sophie Jaques and Jincy Dunne emerged as one of the best defensive pairs in collegiate hockey. Together, they were a disciplined, reliable duo that Buckeyes head coach Nadine Muzerall felt comfortable feeding a lot of minutes.
“I never really thought of (how she played) as a surprise, I thought of it as ‘oh, that’s really nice!’” Muzerall told The Athletic’s Alison Lukan in December. “I think it’s now more that I’m excited to see what she’s going to look like next year and the year after that. We have the thought of ‘wow, we’ve got her for three more years.’”
Muzerall and the Buckeyes quickly became impressed with Jaques’ ability to carry the puck and transition from defense and offense. She led all freshmen defenders this year with the 110 shots she put on net and scored five goals, three of which were hammered home on the power play. And while it’s true that Jaques has the tools to become a true power play quarterback over the next three years, she also shared the national lead in even strength scoring (15 points) among freshmen blueliners.
Ohio State had a 12-4-1 record this year when Jaques picked up a point. She also had more than two times as many points as Ohio State’s next-highest scoring freshman. But Jaques did a lot more than appear in the box score. She played in all situations for the Buckeyes and established herself as a must-watch two-way defender in the WCHA.
Abigail Levy | Minnesota State
Abigail Levy was an absolute workhorse for Minnesota State this year. She played the highest percentage of minutes among freshmen goaltenders in the nation and stood between the pipes for more than 2,000 minutes. In that time, Levy faced more shots and made more saves than any other freshman goaltender.
Even in the early stages of the 2018-19 season, it was clear that she was the Mavericks’ most valuable player.
The Shattuck St. Mary’s alumna is an imposing figure in net. Levy stands out at 6-foot-1 and she uses her excellent lateral movement to appear even bigger in net. She finished her first collegiate season with an outstanding .924 save percentage, which is made all the more impressive when considering the fact that Minnesota State had the worst offense in the conference. In other words, she came was rarely the reason why her team lost. More often than not, Levy was the player keeping her team in the game.
When Levy was on her game, she was practically impervious. The Mavericks won just nine games this year and Levy had shutouts in five of them, including a 41-save shutout against Ohio State on Dec. 1. As impressive as her numbers were, it was clear that her heavy workload wore her down.
After posting a save percentage below .900 in seven of the games she played between Jan. 6 and Feb. 5, she finally sat a game out. After that much-needed respite, Levy posted a .912 save percentage in her final seven starts of the season. It’s worth noting that she made at least 30 saves in six of those seven games — and those games were against Wisconsin, Minnesota, UMD, and Ohio State.
Levy didn’t win many games, but that is just one more reason why we shouldn’t evaluate goaltenders by their record. Levy became the first Maverick named to an All-WCHA team since 2013-14. She was also named to the WCHA’s All-Rookie Team and was an invitee to Team USA’s Goaltending Development camp in May. She is one of just a handful of young goalies who has a real chance to carve out a role for herself on Team USA over the next few years.
Taylor Heise | Minnesota
The Golden Gophers are no strangers to recruiting highly-coveted freshmen and Taylor Heise was as coveted as they come. She was named Ms. Hockey in 2018 and and won three gold medals with Team USA at the World Juniors Championship before her freshman season at the University of Minnesota.
USA's second goal. Taylor Heise from Sophia Shaver and Britta Curl. pic.twitter.com/Rvlcher7l0— The Ice Garden (@TheIceGarden) August 17, 2018
The 5-foot-10 forward displayed versatility by playing both wing and center and finished her freshman season with 13 goals and 22 assists in 39 games. She was the Gophers’ third-highest scoring skater this year. On a roster like Minnesota’s, that is quite an accomplishment.
Heise has a big frame and knows how to use it, but Heise paints inside of the lines with her play. Her discipline — highlighted by only six minor penalties she took this year — is merely an afterthought to her more impressive traits including her versatility and knack for getting shots on net. Heise led Minnesota in shots on goal (147) this year and also showed her knack for coming through in the clutch with five game-winning goals. So, we shouldn’t be surprised if she develops into a dominant goal-scorer.
The Minnesota-native would have finished with better counting stats this year, but she moved around the lineup a lot. She even spent time on the Gophers’ all-freshman fourth line. If Heise had spent more time playing with Grace Zumwinkle and Nicole Schammel, her numbers would have been even more impressive than they already were.
Heise was invited to Team USA’s 2018 Evaluation Camp for a reason. Her potential is absolutely through the roof. Expect her to take her game to the next level in her sophomore season.
Honorable Mentions: Britta Curl (Wisconsin), Celine Tedenby (Maine), Chloé Aurard (Northeastern), Amy Potomak (Minnesota), Maggie Flaherty (Minnesota-Duluth), and Maddy MacArthur (Boston College).