Former Eau Claire, Wisc., area star Ava Kison joined Franklin Pierce women's hockey in the midst of a major transition.
"I definitely felt we had a lot to prove," Kison said.
The Ravens, who launched their program in 2012, played their first seven seasons of existence down an NCAA Division. The NCAA does not sponsor ice hockey at the Division II level, so DII Franklin Pierce had to either compete against the top circuit or at DIII.
The university opted for DIII and found quick success on the ice. Unfortunately, because they weren't a true DIII program, NCAA regulations forbade the Ravens from carrying that success into the DIII postseason tournament. And since the team didn't play the requisite number of games against DI and DII schools, it wasn't eligible for the DI tournament either.
That changed this year, thanks to the university's president and athletic director agreeing the players should be rewarded with a real postseason opportunity. The Ravens began the process of joining the Division I ranks, with Kison's class serving as the first wave of DI reinforcements.
"We were fairly successful at the Division III level, but they were the kids that we brought in to sort of set the stage for what the Division I mindset and attitude look like," Franklin Pierce head coach David Stockdale said, "and to be able to come in and push the pace from the bottom as freshmen, in the weight room, on the ice and all those things."
That meant big expectations for Kison and her classmates. Kison, a former All-Big Rivers first teamer, lived up to it in her first season.
"Ava, much like the rest of her class, certainly delivered," Stockdale said. "She very quickly became a player we relied on offensively. She played a lot of minutes for us at 5-on-5, was a big part of our power play. We threw her right into the fire."
Kison, who led Stars forwards in points in her senior year, maintained that offensive touch at the college level. She scored 10 goals, second among Ravens freshmen and fifth on the whole squad, in addition to 12 assists in 32 games. She developed a knack for timely scoring as well. Four of her 10 goals were game-winning tallies.
"I don't know, I guess I stepped up in some bigger moments at times," Kison said. "That was pretty exciting."
Stockdale and Kison both have fond memories of her second career goal, which capped off an improbable comeback against Plymouth State in November. Franklin Pierce heavily outshot the Panthers in the game, finishing with a 55-16 advantage, but were down 4-1 entering the final four minutes of action.
That's when the Ravens pounced, getting a trio of late goals to force an extra frame. Two and a half minutes into overtime, Kison sent Plymouth State home dazed.
"She took a puck, slashing through the neutral zone and drove around the defenseman," Stockdale said. "She was a lefty coming down the left wing side, she was almost at the goal line and she cut back up front on her backhand and went right up under the bar, stuck it in the corner. It was just an unbelievable goal."
Ava Kison scores game-winner against Plymouth State
Three days later, she earned a second straight overtime winner in nearly the same fashion, this time on her forehand, against conference foe Saint Michael's.
Franklin Pierce went 21-11, marking the team's second straight season with at least 20 victories. There were still some Division III foes on the schedule, but thanks to joining the newly formed New England Women's Hockey Alliance, every one of the team's conference games counts as Division I competition. The Ravens also scheduled non-conference games against New Hampshire, Dartmouth and Maine, and Stockdale said he hopes to add more traditional Division I powers in the future.
The Ravens were eligible for the NCAA Tournament this season, but the NEWHA has to wait until 2021-22 for its champion to earn an automatic bid.
"That definitely gave us confidence playing against real DI teams," Kison said. "Hopefully we can make it to the tournament in the future."
Kison, like many of her fellow Chippewa Valley prep alums, is back in Wisconsin riding out the pandemic. She hasn't been able to get on the ice in months, limited to working on shooting and puck handling in her garage.
She's enjoyed being a part of this Franklin Pierce process, as well as the buzz that's been created on the New Hampshire campus because of it. When she does get back to New England, she's ready to help the Ravens continue to solidify themselves in the top level of play.
"It's cool to know we're starting something that could continue for a long time," Kison said.
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