WEATHER ALERT

Kirk thrives on competition

St. Anne goalie part of exceptional group at women’s hockey powerhouse OSU

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Goaltenders are supposed to crave being their team’s undisputed No. 1, right? Well, if you ask Raygan Kirk, a two- or three-goalie rotation can have an upside, too.

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Goaltenders are supposed to crave being their team’s undisputed No. 1, right? Well, if you ask Raygan Kirk, a two- or three-goalie rotation can have an upside, too.

The 21-year-old Ste. Anne product, in her second full season with No. 1-ranked Ohio State University (OSU), is a key part of the Buckeyes’ bid to repeat as NCAA women’s hockey champions.

Kirk transferred to OSU after the hockey program at Pittsburgh’s Robert Morris University was jettisoned in May of 2021 and the process of gaining traction with a new team took time.

Ohio State Athletics

Ohio State goalie Raygan Kirk is among those being considered for NCAA goaltender of the year.

She played only four games in 2021-22 but with the graduation of senior Andrea Brändli, Switzerland’s goalie at the Beijing Olympics, Kirk has seized the opportunity.

In nine starts, she has a team-leading 1.74 goals-against average while also posting a .924 save percentage and two shutouts. Those numbers were good enough to earn her a spot last week on a list of 27 top performers being considered for the NCAA’s 2023 goalie of the year.

Kirk’s roommate Amanda Thiele, who started the 2022-23 season as the presumptive No. 1 goalie, has a 1.98 goals-against average, .892 save percentage and three shutouts in 12 starts.

No. 3 puckstopper Quinn Kuntz has made three appearances.

“I live with Amanda and we’re the best of friends — we have a really good goalie (group) this year — and we all push each other,” said Kirk by phone from Columbus earlier this week. “During practice you’re always fighting for the Friday game (start) and it’s really the coach’s choice if you get the second start (on Saturday) or not. They have confidence in both of us to be able to go in there and get the win or at least keep it as close as we can.”

The OSU goalie troika has been doing better than keeping things close; the Buckeyes are off to a 20-2-2 start overall, with a 15-2-1 mark in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Buckeyes head coach Nadine Muzerall likes what she’s seen so far from Kirk.

“It’s more of a mental thing for Raygan, she’s more confident and competitive,” said Muzerall. “Last year, she came in and… she was really the third-string goalie. We had an Olympic goalie that got us to numerous Frozen Fours and conference championships and then Thiele stepped up in March and she ended up winning the national championship.

“(This year), Raygan’s had an opportunity to step up and get more playing time and she’s been challenging the other goalies every day in practice. I think it’s great to have two very strong goaltenders.”

Muzerall has the luxury of depth and experience throughout her roster, something she believes helps to foster a competitive environment in practice.

“Every Monday is the beginning of a new tryout, a new week and a time to reset and a time to compete,” said Muzerall. “We have an excellent goalie coach and we compete every day and you’ve got to compete to be the best. They’re really a great group of goaltenders that care for one another and they support one another and they don’t get jealous of each other’s success. They lift each other up and encourage one another — we truly don’t have any hiccups.”

Ohio State has a well-earned reputation as a football school but the women’s hockey team is generating some buzz of its own lately. University officials had to turn away fans from its sold-out home arena during last weekend’s sweep of the Wisconsin Badgers.

“The culture is really football-centred for sure but they love their sports here and the amount of people that we had at our games last weekend was incredible,” said Kirk. “Football’s definitely a lot crazier and the Michigan rivalry — I got to experience that for the first time this year being at home — that was incredible, too.”

The Buckeyes will continue to build their resume for another Women’s Frozen Four appearance when they travel to St. Cloud (Minn.) State for games Friday and Saturday afternoon. Kirk, who will have a fifth year of eligibility in 2023-24 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, believes winning another national title is realistic.

“It’s hard to win once and definitely hard to win twice in a row and not many teams have done it, but I think right now we’re on a good good path,” she said.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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