Ohio State women’s hockey had never been a national championship contender before Nadine Muzerall became the Buckeyes’ head coach.
That doesn’t even begin to describe the state of the program Muzerall inherited when she accepted the head coaching job at Ohio State in September 2016. She was hired just weeks before the start of the 2016-17 season after former head coach Jenny Potter was fired for committing NCAA violations. The Buckeyes’ previous head coach, Nate Handrahan, was ousted less than two years before that following an investigation into sexual harassment complaints.
Ohio State had never won more than 20 games in a season before Muzerall’s arrival, nor had it ever even made the NCAA Tournament. But Muzerall, who was previously an assistant coach at her alma mater Minnesota, came to Columbus with a belief that she could transform the Buckeyes into a national championship contender.
“I remember my husband, who was a Big Ten football player (at Minnesota), he said ‘Are you out of your mind?’ This is the Ohio State, it doesn't get any bigger than this,’ and I just remember me saying like, ‘Well, their hockey team’s not very good,’” Muzerall said. “And he said, ‘We'll change that. And you have the resources to do that and the people supporting you.’”
Five-and-a-half years later, Muzerall’s vision came to full fruition on Sunday when Ohio State defeated Minnesota Duluth, 3-2, to win the Buckeyes’ first-ever national championship. And she said that felt just as good as she imagined it would.
“Yeah, it sure does,” Muzerall said with a laugh after Sunday’s win. “This is something that's forever, that can never be taken from these young ladies. And I mean, of course they're enjoying this moment, but it's one of those things when you come back 15 years later with your kids or as you get older, and just the amount of pride that you left a legacy.”
Even before this season, Muzerall had already taken Ohio State’s women’s hockey program to new heights. The Buckeyes set a new program record with 24 wins and made their first Frozen Four in just Muzerall’s second season on the job in 2017-18. They won 24 games again and won their first WCHA Final Faceoff title in 2019-20, and made it back to the Frozen Four for a second time a year ago.
Going into this season, Muzerall believed her program was ready to take the next step and go all the way, and she wasn’t afraid to share that with everyone in the athletic department before the season even began.
“We were laughing on the plane, at the beginning of the year, Muz in front of the whole, all of athletics had said, ‘We're gonna win a national championship this year,’” Ohio State forward Clair DeGeorge said after the team’s arrival back in Columbus on Sunday night. “So we look back at that now and realizing that we actually made that come true, it's huge.”
Kenzie Hauswirth, who scored the game-winning goal in Sunday’s victory, said Muzerall’s confidence in the Buckeyes’ ability to win it all fostered a belief within themselves that they were ready to make a championship run.
“She believed in us all year, she pushed us all year and we knew what we were fighting for and what we were going for, and she just brought this confidence to us that we needed in order to win today,” Hauswirth said. “She's pretty intense, but in the best way possible and the best coach I've ever had in my life, and I'm sure everybody would say the same thing.”
Muzerall says Ohio State women’s hockey was “broken” when she arrived in 2016, and she had to revamp the culture within the program to get the Buckeyes to where they are now. In order for that to be successful, she needed Ohio State’s players to buy into that culture.
Based on the results the Buckeyes achieved this year, it’s clear that Ohio State’s players have bought in. And they say a big reason why they became so bought in is because they know how hard Muzerall has worked to help them succeed.
“We know she outworks every coach in the league, every coach in the country,” fifth-year senior forward Liz Schepers said after the game. “When you have a coach that works that hard for you, you want to put it back in the program. Muzzy and the leaders on that team my first couple years set the standard of what our culture is going to be and it was get on board or get out of the way because we're running with this thing. And I credit those early teams so much with where we are today and the opportunities that we've had and how we've grown. Definitely we want to win, and that family atmosphere we create, like it's a tough love environment, but it gets the job done, it gets you the results.”
That work won’t stop even now that Ohio State has achieved its goal of winning a national championship. After bringing in eight transfers last offseason that played a crucial role in the Buckeyes’ success this season, Muzerall said Sunday night that she would soon turn her focus to building next year’s roster – even though there’s plenty of people encouraging her to take a break and enjoy what she just accomplished.
“I'm not gonna lie, a part of me is gonna probably go look at the transfer portal pretty quickly, just because a lot of kids are probably going to enter now that the season's over. So in a way, you're always feeling like you're working,” Muzerall said. “But at the same time, I want to enjoy time with my husband, time with my kids, because my husband's been like number 29 on the list after all the players and my kids. So he's accepted that, but yeah, I've been told I need a vacation, from everybody. So maybe I should try that.”
Regardless of what happens next year and beyond, the 2021-22 Ohio State women’s hockey team will forever be remembered as the team that proved the Buckeyes could win a championship in the sport, and that’s something all of them can take pride in for the rest of their lives – even if what they accomplished hadn’t quite set in yet as of Sunday night.
“I don't even know if I realize what's going on right now,” Schepers said with a laugh after Sunday’s game. “It's so special. This team has the fingerprints of so many leaders that came before me, so many people that were a part of this program, that put in the dirty work and set the standard for our culture to where it got to a point where it runs itself. And the standard coming in, you know the standard when you put on that Ohio State jersey. So I just have so much pride and we really wanted to carry the torch for those teams that struggled and those teams that went through the grind years of getting Ohio State where it is today. I am just so thankful for this program and to have been a part of that journey, it makes this that much sweeter.”