Taylor Stewart is a self-described “homebody.”
In a look-at-the-bright-side way, the COVID-19 pandemic and a summer spent on quarantine in 2020 wasn’t such a bad thing for the 20-year-old Rochester native.
Stewart missed her teammates from the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team while spending nearly five months at home in Rochester last year.
She also didn’t let that distance stop her from putting in the work necessary to help the Bulldogs reach one of their primary goals: To qualify for the NCAA Division I tournament. Not only did UMD qualify, the Bulldogs persevered and knocked off No. 4-ranked Colgate 1-0 in overtime on Monday to advance to the Frozen Four.
Stewart and the No. 6-ranked Bulldogs (12-6-0) face an even greater challenge in a national semifinal game at 1 p.m. (ESPN3). They face No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seeded Northeastern (21-1-1).
“We’re super excited,” Stewart said from Erie, Pa., the site of all of this year’s Division I women’s hockey national tournament games. “Due to COVID, we haven’t really played any east coast teams this year; Colgate was the first one. It’ll be exciting to take on the No. 1 seed. Hopefully we can bring our game to them.”
Northeastern made quick work of eighth-seeded Robert Morris in the opening round, but Stewart said the Bulldogs intend to put up a fight against the Huskies.
“We play a very gritty game,” said Stewart, who played at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault from 2015-19 before joining UMD’s team. “We’re very resilient and we don’t stop. We hope to come at teams in waves and outwork them. WCHA teams do that, the work ethic, winning the battles it takes to win games.”
Stewart was part of some of those battles last season as a freshman. She played in all 36 games and contributed three assists. But she wanted more. She wanted penalty-kill time, and she wanted to be on the ice in crucial situations. She wanted the trust of the coaching staff.
So she went to work.
While staying at home last summer, and while ice arenas and gyms were shut down, Stewart began to scavenge for anything that might help her improve her strength, her speed, her shot or all three.
“The pandemic had its downfalls with everything being shut down,” she said, “but our players took upon themselves, and our captains pushed us, as a team to continue training, with an eye toward playing in this (national) tournament.
“I tried to do everything I could at home. I was bench-pressing spare tires, lifting cases of water bottles … honestly, we all made the best of it. Our teammates held each other accountable to keep grinding. That helped us get where we are now. We never let up. We saw the obstacle as an opportunity to get better and get to the NCAA tournament.”
A BLUE-COLLAR PLAYER
Stewart’s statistics — no goals, five assists in 54 career games at UMD — aren’t eye-catching, but they aren’t supposed to be.
On a team that has plenty of scorers, Stewart has carved a niche for herself by selling out to stop opposing teams from scoring.
“I’m a very defensive (defender),” she said. “I take a lot of pride in my (defensive) zone play, being good against the rush and preventing teams from scoring goals or from having chances to score.”
Stewart has developed into a crucial member of a defensive corps that allows 27.8 shots and 1.7 goals per game.
“I’m playing a pretty important role on the penalty kill this year,” she said. “That’s my favorite part of hockey. I love being out there to kill penalties. I think a lot of teams might get nervous when they’re on the penalty kill, but our team uses it as an opportunity to gain momentum back.
“Statistically, our kill has been at about 90 percent this year, that’s been our goal. We use it to change the momentum of the game. If you shut a team down on their power play, you get the momentum and your offense can take over the game.”
That stingy defensive play has helped UMD go 7-2-0 in its past nine games and is a big reason why the Bulldogs earned an at-large berth to and the No. 5 seed in the national tournament. As they waited for the eight-team tournament field to be announced on March 7, Stewart and her teammates weren’t sure if their names would be called.
UMD had been beaten fairly handily in the WCHA semifinals the day before, losing to rival Ohio State 7-2. Likewise, the University of Minnesota had also lost in the WCHA semifinals, 5-3 against top-seeded Wisconsin. Many college hockey experts and watchers were predicting the final berth to the national tournament could come down to Minnesota or Minnesota Duluth.
The tournament selection committee apparently saw it the same way. It awarded UMD that spot, setting off a wild celebration by the Bulldogs, who were gathered in their locker room to watch the tournament selection show.
“We were all devastated after losing to Ohio State,” Stewart said. “It was a long weekend waiting for that moment when the selection show happened. The second we saw our name, it was cheering and yelling and we were all so happy and thankful for the opportunity.
“We felt we deserved to be in, and that the selection committee saw it the same way was awesome.”
No matter how UMD’s season ends, Stewart said she’ll continue to work to improve for her junior year and build on the trust she has gained from the Bulldogs’ coaches.
“This year it’s more that I’m playing the same shifts and playing in bigger moments,” she said. “It’s my first year on the penalty kill and being on the ice in the final minutes of close games. … It’s fun to see the hard work pay off.”