Women's hockey at Penn State dates back to the fall of 1996 when students Kathy Beckford and Ellen Bradley (the latter a graduate student who had played at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as an undergrad) were disappointed that there wasn't a team on campus and decided to do something about it. They drummed up interest, enlisted the help of Greenberg Ice Pavilion programs director Vinnie Scalamogna - who served as PSU's first coach - and by February 1, 1997, the group was ready for its first game: a 5-4 win over the Susquehanna Rockettes, an adult club outfit. The team quickly took on the moniker "Lady Icers," an obvious reference to their men's hockey counterpart that had long stood as one of non-varsity hockey's stalwart programs, and finished its 1996-97 schedule with a 4-2-1 record.
Scheduling was somewhat inconsistent in those first couple years - a college here, a club team there - but that began to change in the 1999-2000 season when the Lady Icers joined a new conference, the Mid-Atlantic Women's Collegiate Hockey Association, with regional rivals Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and, for 2000-01, Maryland. PSU made short work of the MAWCHA in that inaugural year, going 8-0-0 in the league and beating Syracuse and Pitt to win its playoff title before repeating as regular season champs in 2000-01.
Early Lady Icers stars included Ellen Zajko, whose breakaway goal was decisive in the team's first-ever game. Zajko went on to serve as a three-season captain (1998-2001) during a highly-decorated career. Another was Canadian import Andrea Lavelle, who graduated in 2002 and notably was on an athletic scholarship as a member of Penn State's women's golf team. After PSU, she would go on to play professionally in the now-defunct National Women's Hockey League.
The American Collegiate Hockey Association, the premier sanctioning body for non-varsity college hockey in the United States, added a women's division for the 2000-01 season. The Lady Icers joined the ACHA for that inaugural season and began achieving even greater success that had been seen to that point. PSU was a participant in the first four ACHA National Tournaments for women and earned the distinction of being the East Region's top seed in 2001's first-ever championships.
Penn State's 2001-02 squad is generally recognized as the best in program history. Behind head coach Billie Willits and offensive dynamos like Alex McVicker and Lavelle, who scored 76 goals and 114 points in 24 games, the Lady Icers went 22-7-1 and finished third at nationals after a 4-2 win over Boston University in the consolation game. Lavelle and McVicker each scored twice to take down the Terriers, who would go on to join NCAA Division I four years later. In addition to her team honors, Lavelle was named the 2001-02 ACHA Women's Division Player of the Year, the 2002 ACHA Women's National Tournament MVP and, naturally, First Team All-American.
|Katie King finished her career as the Lady Icers' all-time leading scorer|
As one legend's career wound down, another's was just getting started. Katie King, who scored 84 points and was a Second Team All-American on the 2001-02 team, would become the focal point of the Penn State offense and string together two more 80-point seasons before finishing her career in 2005 as the Lady Icers' all-time leading scorer. King, McVicker, Lauren Johnston and Stephanie Feyock helped ensure continued success in the post-Lavelle years, as PSU followed up the 2002 run to the ACHA semifinals with tournament appearances in 2003 and 2004, along with the Delaware Valley Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season and playoff championships in 2002-03.
The 2002-03 season was also notable for the arrival of goaltender Tara Wheeler who, following her 2006 graduation, was crowned Miss Virginia in 2008. Wheeler was hardly just a pretty face though, as she keyed PSU's mid-decade teams with high-water marks of 15 wins (2002-03), a 1.70 goals against average (2003-04) and seven shutouts (2003-04).
|2008 Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler as a Penn State goalie|
Beauty pageants aside, the middle part of the decade wasn't always kind to the Lady Icers, as the team often struggled to roster the depth required to compete for a national championship. On the positive side, King passed the "superstar" baton to Jess Waldron in 2005 and she, along with the help of a 96-point season from Alicia Lepore and an offensively-proficient blueline featuring Ceili Stahl, Stephanie Doyle and Dana Voelker, was able to lead PSU back to nationals in 2007 following the team's first two losing seasons since 1997-98.
A new degree of continuity was added to the program in 2007-08 when Mo Stroemel, who was well established on the Penn State hockey scene thanks to previous roles with the university's ACHA men's teams, took over as head coach. Stroemel would lead the team through four pivotal seasons, making him the longest-serving coach in Lady Icers history, and he also helped bring the program back to prominence after carrying, at times, just nine players in his first year.
|The 2009-10 Lady Icers, that squad's last team to appear at the ACHA WD1 National Tournament|
The rebuild would prove fruitful when the Lady Icers made what would turn out to be their final nationals appearance in 2010. Players like Lepore and second-team All-American goaltender Heather Rossi helped lead the way - as did a fantastic batch of underclassmen featuring future captain Sara Chroman and Kate Christoffersen on defense, along with Dana Heller, Kirsten Evans and Sam Summers (who scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Liberty at nationals) up front.
Of course, winding up as the sixth-best team in the nation - PSU's highest final ranking since the 2002 semifinal appearance - was only the second-best thing to happen to the program that year. On September 17, 2010, Penn State announced that, thanks to an $88 million dollar (later raised to $102 million) donation from Terry and Kim Pegula to endow scholarships and construct the state-of-the-art Pegula Ice Arena on campus, the Lady Icers would be elevated to varsity status and NCAA Division I following the 2011-12 season.
Still, there was history left to be made at the ACHA level before completing the jump.
|Goaltender Katie Vaughan as a member of Team USA at the 2013 World University Games|
In 2011, Lady Icers goalies Rossi and Katie Vaughan, along with defender Lindsay Reihl and forward Denise Rohlik, were members of the first women's team sent by USA Hockey to the biennial World University Games. The quartet helped Team USA, which was coached by Stroemel, to a fourth-place finish in Erzurum, Turkey, at that point the best placement by an American side (male or female) since the ACHA began supplying players to the event in 2001. Vaughan and Stroemel again made history when they reprised their roles during 2013's Games in Trentino, Italy by setting a new high-water mark for Team USA and taking home bronze medals. Vaughan keyed the trip to the podium by stopping 37 of 38 shots in a third-place match win over Japan, as well as 33 of 35 in a preliminary-round victory over Russia, the eventual silver medalists.
Future NCAA program coach Josh Brandwene (with Stroemel also behind the bench as his assistant) led Penn State through the 2011-12 campaign, which was noteworthy for a brutally-tough schedule including eleven opponents from NCAA Divisions I and III. Regardless, the Lady Icers acquitted themselves very well against the competition - including a 3-2 win at NCAA DI Sacred Heart decided by a Tess Weaver goal with 16 seconds remaining in overtime on January 14, 2012.
|Tess Weaver, whose OT goal ended the Lady Icers' only win over NCAA Division I competition|
Thanks largely to a top line of soon-to-be NCAA players Weaver, Jess Desorcie and Taylor Gross (the latter two transferring in from NCAA DIII Connecticut College and NCAA DI Connecticut at the semester break), PSU was also successful against the ACHA. The Lady Icers beat eventual national champion Northeastern twice during the second half of the year, then clinched the regular season title of the Eastern Collegiate Women's Hockey League with a sweep of Vermont on February 18th and 19th, 2012.
Once the Lady Icers officially made the NCAA jump and became the Nittany Lions, the Women's Ice Hockey Club, later nicknamed the Lady Ice Lions, formed for the 2012-13 season to fly the Penn State flag in ACHA Women's Division 2.
Many Lady Icers mainstays like coach Patrick Fung (an assistant under Stroemel), Vaughan, Carly Szyszko, Allie Rothman, Mary Kate Tonetti, Ashton Schaffer, Sarah Eisenhut and Elizabeth Denis (a former player at NCAA DI Brown) came on board to ensure the team's immediate competitiveness. However, scarcity of things like ice time and locker space at the soon-to-be-closed Ice Pavilion, as well as difficulty assembling a full schedule as a first-year team put the Lady Ice Lions in a difficult position. Still, the team persevered and squeaked into the ACHA WD2 National Tournament after a 6-3-0 regular season, including a January upset of second-ranked West Chester.
|The 2012-13 Women's Ice Hockey Club, ACHA WD2's national runners-up|
That's when the real fun began. Penn State got the attention of the field on the first day of the championships in Ashburn, VA by toppling Alaska, the top seed in the West Region, 2-1. The next day another stunner, this time 3-1 over defending national champion Wisconsin-Stout, boosted the team into the national semifinals. A rematch with Stout followed, one that saw PSU saddled with a 1-0 deficit into the third period until Tara Soukup's power play blast whistled home with 8:40 remaining before elimination. Nina Elia would complete the comeback with a rebound goal past Blue Devils goalie Kaye Collier in the second overtime.
Although the final against West Chester ended in defeat, Vaughan and Devon Fisk would capture all-tournament accolades for a run that was both the best-ever finish for a women's hockey team at Penn State, as well as the best finish for any PSU team since the Icers won the 2003 ACHA national championship in Men's Division 1.
The following season witnessed a reloaded PSU squad run to a 19-4-2 mark, wrapping up the inaugural College Hockey East women's regular season championship with a 3-1 Senior Day win over California. However, déjà vu was the order at nationals in Newark, DE as, following wins over Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota State and Cal, Iowa State nipped the Lady Ice Lions 1-0 in the final. Fisk, Vaughan and Soukup each won first team All-Tournament honors, and Vaughan (first team), Fisk (second team) and Geneva Wagoner (first team) were All-Americans.
The past also repeated itself during the 2014-15 season, when the Lady Ice Lions moved up to ACHA Division 1 and rejoined the Eastern Collegiate Women's Hockey League that the Lady Icers called home from 2003 until 2012. A strong core remaining from the back-to-back Division 2 runners-up was supplemented by an exciting collection of freshmen and a quartet of players from Penn State's NCAA team: Darby Kern, Cara Mendelson, Katie Murphy and Madison Smiddy. Desorcie, another former NCAA player, also made her return to the ACHA as an assistant coach. Along with Desorcie, Mendelson, Murphy and Smiddy had been a part of the 2011-12 Lady Icers' ECWHL regular season championship team as freshmen.
|Darby Kern was ACHA Division 1's scoring leader in 2014-15|
With a 17-8-2 overall record standing as Penn State's second best ever at the D1 level, and PSU's return to the D1 national tournament for the first time since 2010 (and just the third time since 2004), a season that began with numerous question marks was a resounding success. Kern's 61 points made her the national scoring leader and helped her join Lavelle in 2001-02 as the only D1 first-team All-Americans in school history. Smiddy, meanwhile, qualified for the 2015 U.S. National University Team to continue Penn State's run of having at least one player at every women's World University Games tournament and excelled in Granada, Spain. Tonetti made a full-time return to her natural goaltending position after playing forward for two seasons to help the Lady Ice Lions' depth and was one of the nation's best, winning the ACHA's goaltender of the month award twice during the campaign.
Still, no individual achievement can match the team accomplishment of January 18, 2015, when the Lady Ice Lions strolled into Oxford, OH's Goggin Ice Center and toppled Miami University 4-3 to end the RedHawks' 31-game unbeaten streak. MU was both the defending ACHA Division 1 national champion and then its top ranked team, and that squad also included the ACHA's reigning coach of the year, player of the year and national tournament most valuable player. That result, as well as wins over two other top five teams, clinched the Lady Ice Lions' third straight nationals bid.