Women's Hockey: 'Cats honor graduating seniors

By Max Sullivan
On February 25, 2014

UNH women's hockey captain Nicole Gifford has watched three senior classes graduate. To finally be honored on Sunday's Senior Day herself  was surreal.

"I just couldn't believe it was me doing it," Gifford said. "You sit there and watch all your old teammates do the same thing in the years past, and then, for you to be the one doing it, it was pretty crazy. You're just numb to it."

On Sunday afternoon, seniors Gifford, Jessica Hitchcock and Arielle O'Neill were honored with a pregame ceremony before their final game together at the Whittemore Center. As they stood with their families at center ice, three banners were raised above the media boxes with their names and numbers on them. In addition, the team hung three large posters, designed and colored by hand, with the names "O'Neill," "Giff" and "Hitch" written on them, their respective numbers drawn underneath.

"It was a good day," co-head coach Jamie Wood said. "Nice to have the seniors honored and have the families here, and they did a nice job with the pregame, and it's always a special occasion whenever you can have the families here and recognized, the careers of the seniors, so that was really a special day."

O'Neill called it "bittersweet."

"It's nice to celebrate the time we had here and the different memories we made," O'Neill said, "But it's also sad because you're leaving a great program and great friends and teammates."

Each of the three Ontario-born seniors was a major contributor to the team, especially in their senior year.

Gifford ended her career in Durham as team captain, serving as alternate captain the year before. The Ontario native played for Mississauga Jr. Chiefs before college, and totaled 71 points as a Wildcat, leading the team in goals with 11 and points with 24 in her senior year.

In Hitchcock's two seasons at UNH, she totaled 41 points. In her senior year, she led the team in assists with 14 and tied for second most goals with nine. Hitchcock transferred to UNH her junior year after two years at Niagara, where her program sadly ended after the firing of their head coach. Hitchcock's older sister, Jennifer, was a three-time All-Hockey East selection for UNH. Hitchcock had been coming to Durham to see her sister play long before she put on a Wildcat jersey.

Hitchcock was sad to see her Senior Day come and go.

"Yeah, you know, it's hard, I've been coming here since I was, like, 10, so seeing [her number] up there, it's hard," Hitchcock said. "Knowing you're done, you know we have next weekend which we're trying to look forward to, but it sucks knowing that that was your last game at the Whitt."

O'Neill was not only what co-head coach Jamie Wood called "a really dominant faceoff person in the league this year," but she was a solid two-way player who knew how to use her 5-foot-10-inch frame to break up plays on defense. The St. Catherine's, Ontario native even played on the blue line this season while sophomore defenseman Alexis Crossley was out with an injury for nearly a month last fall. She scored 45 points in 100 games for the Wildcats.

In addition to the pre-game ceremony, the seniors' teammates decorated their three lockers with white and blue party streamers and filled them with presents and candies. After the game, Jenna Lascelle and Megan Armstrong presented a cake they had baked for them.

Freshman goaltender Ashley Wilkes realized the gravity of the day - her final regular season game with the three seniors - as she helped decorate the locker room to honor them.

"I went in early to go set up decorations, and it kind of hits [me] that it's the last time you're going to be playing with them," Wilkes said. "Sad day."

Wood said the team is sad to see them go.

"We're going to miss them," Wood said. "They're all really nice people, too, so we're definitely going to miss them."

Junior defenseman Caroline Broderick said the senior class has meant a lot to the team.

 "All we want to do is win, not just for ourselves but win for [seniors]," Broderick said, "because they're three of the biggest hearts. They never give up on us, so we never want to give up on them."

Broderick witnessed her third Senior Day on Sunday. Even after the first two, she said they're never easy to swallow.

 "It definitely doesn't get easier," Broderick said.  "Maybe a little bit harder than last year, and maybe the year before."

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