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22 Minnesotans Propel UWRF to D-III National Title

By Steve Mann, 04/15/24, 9:00AM CDT


When the University of Wisconsin-River Falls women’s hockey team defeated Elmira College on March 17, it was historic.

It was also powered by the State of Hockey.

The 4-1 victory at Hunt Arena earned UWRF the program’s first-ever NCAA Division III National Championship and also capped a perfect 31-0 season, setting a D-III women’s hockey single-season wins record.

The Falcons were fueled by 22 Minnesota natives who grew up in the community-based model.

Three of those players – Maddie McCollins (Maple Grove), Madison Lavergne (Warroad) and MaKenna Aure (Alexandria) – took home All-Tournament Team honors, with McCollins being named the Most Outstanding Player. McCollins was also named AHCA D-III Women’s Player of the Year.

“The whole season was just unreal,” said McCollins. “We knew going into the season we would have a strong team, but never in a million years would I have thought we would go undefeated. Winning on our home ice with the support from our school and in front of our friends and family… you just couldn’t ask for anything better.”

For longtime UWRF head coach Joe Cranston, a native of Fergus Falls, the “chip” marked his first in 25 extremely successful years behind the Falcon bench.

“It was a long time coming,” said Cranston, the first and only head coach in UWRF women’s hockey history. “We’ve been close to winning many times. I’m just really proud of my team, my assistant coaches and this great university that supports us. It hasn’t really sunk in yet, and I don’t know if it ever will.”


The makeup of UWRF’s championship roster provides more evidence of the successful community-based development model emphasized in the State of Hockey.

All but three of the Falcons honed their skills throughout Minnesota, with players hailing from Alexandria (2), Hutchinson, Farmington (2), Shakopee, Monticello, Burnsville, Buffalo, Willmar, Lino Lakes, Blaine, Rochester, Warroad (2), St. Cloud, Maple Grove, Wayzata, Avon, Orono, Proctor and Mankato.

“We take a lot of pride in having Minnesota kids, especially the ‘lunch bucket kids,’” said Cranston. “Kids who played in the same town all the way up, never jumped to another school because the grass seemed greener. They’re kids you can count on. They’ll work hard, and that’s the type of player we’re looking for.”

McCollins, who led UWRF in goals (33), assists (31) and points (64) this season, described the special feeling of winning a championship alongside several players she’s known since her youth, as well as the former coaches and teammates from back home who have reached out to offer congratulations.

“There’s definitely a sense of pride from the community, and that shows the bonds we’ve made over time,” McCollins said. “Something like this shows how much talent there is in Minnesota. There are so many opportunities to play, with good leagues and good teams that are super competitive. We talked a lot about how many of us grew up playing against each other. When I was playing in Wayzata, we didn’t go to State, but we were in the section finals a lot. We had great coaches and lots of team-based building. It was more like a family. I look back at it now and just remember how much fun we had. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without those experiences.”

UWRF defenseman Holly Eckers credits her youth hockey days in Shakopee with her overall development as a player and as a person.

“We grew up with hockey in our veins,” Eckers said. “I started skating when I was 3 and can’t remember a time without skates on my feet. The youth system in Shakopee helped develop my skills and love for the game. I’m blessed to have had coaches who cared about me not only as a player but also as a person. They helped develop my stickhandling and skating, but also who I am. Being from Minnesota also really helped me develop a drive to be the best. I consider River Falls to be an extension of that State of Hockey mindset.”


River Falls’ extraordinary season has also shined a spotlight on Division-III ice hockey and how rewarding it can truly be. D-I certainly receives the lion’s share of media attention, but D-III has so much to offer.

According to McCollins, playing D-III “was the best decision I ever made.”

“Playing D-III has allowed me a lot of opportunities I’ve gotten through the school that I may not have had in D-I because I may not have had time to do it,” said McCollins, who is exploring a career in physical therapy. “D-III schools are smaller, so it’s a tight community. Everyone here still has a passion for hockey and all of the sports teams, but they also want to focus on education and have a more flexible schedule. All of those things contributed to my decision.”

“Not enough attention goes to D-III,” said Eckers. “We put in a lot of work, and many of us are as skilled as a lot of the D-I players. Being part of a competitive team in a competitive environment is something I’m so grateful for. I think more athletes should consider it.