Ohio State Firmly Established As Women’s Hockey Powerhouse with Second National Championship in Three Years

By Dan Hope on March 25, 2024 at 8:35 am
Ohio State celebrates with the national championship trophy
RickWilsonPhotography/Ohio State Dept. of Athletics

Ohio State women’s hockey had never made an NCAA Tournament when Nadine Muzerall became the Buckeyes’ head coach in 2016. Eight years later, the Buckeyes are now a two-time national champion.

Few would have guessed Ohio State was a sleeping giant in the sport when Muzerall took over the program in September 2016. In the years leading up to Muzerall’s arrival, the program was known for scandals rather than success. The Buckeyes were coming off a 10-25-1 season, after which Jenny Potter was fired for committing NCAA violations; their previous coach, Nate Handrahan, was fired following sexual harassment accusations.

Ohio State never even won 60 percent of its games in a single season before Muzerall arrived, nor had it ever finished higher than fourth in the conference standings. Even Muzerall admitted after Ohio State won its first national championship in 2022 that she had reservations about taking the job because of the program’s lack of success to that point.

Now, however, Ohio State is firmly established as one of the elite programs in the sport. A program that had been one of Ohio State’s least successful teams for most of its history has now become arguably its most successful, winning its second NCAA championship in three years on Sunday when the Buckeyes defeated Wisconsin, 1-0, to avenge their loss in last year’s national championship game.

Muzerall expressed gratitude to Ohio State during her postgame press conference for believing in her ability to turn the Buckeyes into an elite program.

“As much as I took a chance on Ohio State, Ohio State took a chance on me,” Muzerall said. “Because I was just a second assistant at Minnesota, my alma mater, we had a lot of success. But a lot of people at Ohio State believed in me and what I could do.”

After going just 14-18-5 in Muzerall’s first season at the helm – when she was hired less than three weeks before the season started – Ohio State has won at least 60 percent of its games in every season since. The Buckeyes have made the Frozen Four five out of six possible times since, proving they have staying power as one of the elite teams in the sport.

Yet Muzerall and the Buckeyes still felt like they had a lot to prove entering Sunday’s national championship game. As Muzerall put it on Saturday, Ohio State felt like “the hot new nightclub,” in that the Buckeyes had been successful and become a destination where top players wanted to play, yet still didn’t have the legacy of the sport’s blue bloods – Wisconsin, Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth and Clarkson, the programs that have won all of the other 22 NCAA championships since women’s college hockey became an official NCAA sport in 2001.

Ohio State still doesn’t have as much history in the sport as those programs do. Its southern location relative to those programs, in a cold-weather sport that’s most popular in northern states closest to Canada, can be seen as a disadvantage. So too can the fact that the Buckeyes still play in the OSU Ice Rink, a facility that’s both small and dated compared to the home ice of their counterparts.

But Muzerall hasn’t let any of those challenges stop her from building a program where championships are no longer a pipe dream but an expectation. Ohio State is now attracting top talent from all over the United States and Canada – defenseman Lauren Bernard was the only native Ohioan on this year’s roster – allowing the Buckeyes to build on their success of past seasons with even more success this year as Ohio State a new school record with 35 wins.

“As much as I took a chance on Ohio State, Ohio State took a chance on me ... A lot of people at Ohio State believed in me and what I could do.”– Ohio State women’s Hockey coach Nadine Muzerall

The testimony of players like freshman forward Joy Dunne, who scored the only goal in Sunday’s national championship game after earning the national rookie of the year award last week, should only make more top recruits want to join the Buckeyes going forward.

“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, and that just kind of happened,” Dunne said after Sunday’s game. “When Muz was recruiting me, like everything she said was true. And she meant it and she cared.”

Muzerall knew from the beginning that this year’s team had the potential to be special. She said she could tell before the season even started that this year’s team would be the most skilled team she had ever coached, even though she already had coached a national championship team at Ohio State and had been an assistant for four national championship teams at Minnesota.

The Buckeyes will have to replace a lot of talent from this year’s team going into next season. Thirteen of Ohio State’s top 18 scorers this season were seniors – though some of them could still potentially return for an extra year of eligibility – while starting goaltender Raygan Kirk, the Most Outstanding Player of the Frozen Four, is also out of eligibility.

As consistently great as Ohio State has been in Muzerall’s tenure, though, there’s no reason to believe the Buckeyes won’t continue to be a championship contender next season and beyond. Muzerall already showed this season that she could build a championship team through the transfer portal – six of the Buckeyes’ key contributors this season, including leading scorer Hannah Bilka and second-team All-American defenseman Cayla Barnes, were offseason transfer additions from Boston College – while Dunne (42 points this season), fellow freshman forward Jocelyn Amos (30 points), sophomore forward Sloane Matthews (28 points) and sophomore defender Emma Peschel (23 points) are among the team’s young stars who could still play multiple more seasons with the Buckeyes.

Still, Muzerall knows it isn’t necessarily easier to stay at the peak of the sport than it is to get there. While there should no longer be any question that Ohio State is among the elite programs in women’s college hockey, Muzerall has no plans to be complacent with just winning two championships. So while Muzerall wants her team to take some time to enjoy the goal it just accomplished, she’ll have a simple message for her returning players and staff when they begin their preparation for next season: “Don’t get comfortable.”

“Two is fantastic. And I want to push to obviously three and more. But it's going to take continued time and effort,” Muzerall said. “Because you don't want to be part of history, you want to continue to push and be the future as well.”

View 25 Comments