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Minnesota native Molly Byrne heads home to play for Mercyhurst in Frozen Four

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Talented young hockey players in Minnesota usually have a path to follow. Play youth hockey, move up to the high school system, and go to one of several top-flight college programs in the state. Molly Byrne chose a different path. And now the Plymouth, Minnesota, native will return home for the biggest games of her career.

Growing up 15 minutes from Ridder Arena, the site of the 2013 Frozen Four, Byrne learned to skate and eventually play hockey at a young age. “When I was a mite, I would play little five minute games between periods of men’s games at the building next door to Ridder,” said Byrne.

From there, she attended Totino-Grace High as a freshman, earning all-conference honors. With her solid play, Byrne had drawn interest from a private school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s, in Fairbault, Minnesota. Leaving home and her high school was a tough decision, but the allure of Shattuck was too much for Byrne. The school is renowned for its hockey tradition, having had NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews roam the school’s halls.

Shattuck is about an hour away from Plymouth, a move that would prepare Byrne for a bigger decision a few years later. Byrne was a key member of several successful seasons with the Sabres. As a sophomore, she helped the team place third at nationals. The next year, the Sabres finished second. As a senior, Byrne and Shattuck won the national championship in 2011.

After gaining exposure at Shattuck, Byrne was recruited by a number of nationally-ranked NCAA Division I programs, including Minnesota. She visited several schools, with Mercyhurst among them. “Growing up, I wanted to be a Gopher, but then I realized what I wanted in a college. I wanted a small school and a smaller town,” said Byrne, “Once I got here (to Mercyhurst) and took my visit, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

Byrne immediately became a factor for the Lakers. As a freshman in 2011-12, she played in all 34 games, earning College Hockey America (CHA) Defenseman of the Year honors as Mercyhurst made its eighth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Lakers squared off with top-ranked Wisconsin in the first round, falling, 3-1.

Byrne came to Erie along with another young defenseman in Vaila Higson. Off the ice, the two became fast friends. On the ice, they formed a stellar duo at the blue line. “I like playing with Vaila-she’s very offensive and I’m more stay-at-home D, so it’s nice,” said Byrne. “We compliment each other well and off the ice, we’re good friends, so that helps with chemistry.”

Back as sophomores, Byrne and Higson have helped the Lakers get back to the NCAA Tournament. Byrne has eight goals and 24 assists. She has compiled a +28 in her ice time as well. She scored two goals and recorded an assist in a win over Providence on October 12, helping the Lakers win, 6-3. In almost two full seasons with Mercyhurst, Byrne has scored in 13 different games. The Lakers are 13-0 in those outings.

The Lakers got back to the CHA Championship Game on March 9. In 2012, Mercyhurst lost at Robert Morris in the CHA title game. This time, Byrne helped the Lakers beat Syracuse to win the conference championship. After the Orange scored to take a 1-0 lead at the end of the second period, Byrne scored early in the third period, tying the game and giving the Lakers momentum. They scored three more goals in the third period, winning the CHA Championship and earning a ninth consecutive berth in the NCAA Tournament.

On March 16, Mercyhurst played #2 Cornell in the first round of NCAAs. The game went back and forth, with both teams taking the lead and then falling behind throughout the day. Cornell took a 2-1 edge after two periods, but the Lakers scored twice in the third and Jenna Dingeldein found the back of the net in overtime, sending the Lakers to the Frozen Four. “We capitalized when we needed to-last year, the pucks weren’t bouncing our way and we got frustrated,” said Byrne. “This year, even after Cornell went up 2-1, we knew if we stuck together, we could pull through.”

Now, Byrne and the Lakers are off to Minneapolis for the Frozen Four. Byrne is expecting over 50 friends and family members to attend Friday’s game against #3 Boston University at Ridder Arena. Minnesota, the host school and #1 team in the country, will play #4 Boston College in the other semifinal. “When I was younger, I would always look up to the Minnesota girls and now I hopefully get to play against them,” said Byrne.