Cornell’s magical season cut short

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The coronavirus (COVID-19) laid waste to the sports world last week. The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons. The MLB pushed back its start date and halted spring training. The NCAA canceled all of its winter season tournaments and the spring season as a whole. It was an unfitting ending to what was a tremendous season for both the Cornell men’s and women’s hockey teams.

For the first time in school history, both the men and women were simultaneously ranked as the top teams in the nation. All that was left was postseason play, with both teams still holding that top spot.

The weekend schedule in Lynah Rink was set. The women’s team was slated to host Mercyhurst in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 14, attempting to win the national title for the first time ever. The men were scheduled to host Princeton in a three-game weekend series in the ECAC Quarterfinals, seeking their first conference title since 2010.

Then, the attendance policy changed on March 10, and these highly anticipated contests were to be played in front of an empty Lynah Rink. Two days later, the ECAC Hockey Championship was canceled. Hours later, the NCAA Tournament was no more.

To call it unsatisfying would be an understatement. There are nine total seniors whose teams were the best in the nation, but their college careers will end without a chance to lift the trophy. Redshirts were granted to senior athletes in spring sports to give them an extra year of athletic eligibility, but with the winter regular seasons complete, it is not likely that the same will be done for Cornell’s hockey teams.

Following an emotional final practice with his team, men’s hockey coach Mike Schafer addressed what will go down as a lost season.

“This is uncharted territory for everybody,” Schafer said. “You’re used to your season being ended. It’s always a sad time, but not this way. It’s tough. To get this kind of team, it’s a three-, four-, five-year process of recruiting all the different types of players, training them, developing them. It stings an awful lot, not for just us, but also our women’s hockey team.”

On the women’s side, coach Doug Derraugh found out the season came to an end five minutes before a scheduled practice. With heavy hearts, the team took one last skate together anyway. Their season ended on a sour note, unfortunately, falling to Princeton in overtime in the ECAC Championship without a chance to overshadow that in the national tournament.

“It was pretty devastating at first,” Derraugh said. “But I told the team, you have to look back at all the things we were able to accomplish. All the things we were able to participate in throughout the year. We had one of the best regular seasons Cornell’s ever had. … I feel for the spring sports who didn’t even get to have their seasons or have those moments or memories that we were able to.”

Of course, this season will leave an empty feeling inside both the members of the team and the fans of Cornell hockey. However, coach Schafer sees this as an opportunity to step back and acknowledge how special it is to have two high-caliber teams with potential pro athletes in central New York.

“Sometimes our Cornell fans don’t understand how lucky they are,” Schafer said. “What I mean by that is to see, on the women’s side, future Olympians - to watch a women’s player here develop, then two or three years later watch them at the highest part of the world at the Olympics, then to watch our players who have been here then have gone on to play in the NHL.”

What’s left of the season is the simple question of ‘What if?’ With both teams ranked as the top in the nation, both coaches addressed what could’ve been if the postseason continued.

“Certainly we had as good of a chance as anybody [to win the national title],” Derraugh said. “You look at our season, and we only lost one game in regular time. We played a lot of the best teams in the country throughout the year, too. It was a team that I felt could win the NCAA Championship. It’s a team that had the best chance that we’ve had in a long time to win the tournament. It couldn’t have been worse timing in general for Cornell hockey on the men’s and women’s side.”

On the men’s side, coach Schafer knew this team was special, listing it alongside three others from his tenure that had a true shot at a national title.

“I definitely had that feeling,” Schafer said. “You only get that feeling as a head coach when you definitely feel you’re destined. You definitely have that opportunity to do it. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a national champion, but it means that you have the pieces ready to go. I felt like that. We definitely thought we had a championship-winning team this year.”

As a coach, some circumstances are out of your control. With the season coming to a bitter and abrupt end, both Schafer and Derraugh have no choice but to build upon the historic success from this year to bring another great winter to Lynah Rink next season with hopes of replication.

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