Witt's youthful age serves her well

Most college coaches are used to their teams hitting snags during practice. Players don't understand a route, coaches didn't make themselves clear, assistants help put out the fires.

Yale women's ice hockey coach Hilary Witt takes it a step further. She'll show her players what she wants -- literally.

Witt will skate up the wing, showing forwards how to beat the defensemen for the easier shot. After all, it hasn't been that long since she played.

Not even five years removed from her final season as a Northeastern forward, the 27-year-old Witt has transformed Yale into a nationally ranked contender in just her third season behind the bench.

"I can understand what the girls are going through," Witt said. "I can understand it because I just dealt with their struggles not so long ago."

Witt finished her playing career as Northeastern's all-time leader in goals and points with 207 points (113-94) in 139 games. After graduation, she was on the U.S. National Team roster before joining Yale as an assistant coach during the 2001-02 season. Yale finished a dismal 9-19-3 and just 3-12-1 in ECAC play.

That was when the school decided it needed a change, dismissing John Marchetti and naming Witt interim coach at the start of the 2002-03 season. After being named ECAC Coach of the Year, she lost the interim tag.

"She demands respect and we give it to her," said senior captain/defenseman Erin Duggan, who has been with Witt her entire collegiate career at Yale. "Her age benefits the team's atmosphere. She knows what it's like to have three papers due in one week and then have a big game that weekend.

"No one is walking on pins and needles. She wants to win."

This season, the Bulldogs, already 9-5-0, are off to their best start in school history. The Bulldogs' other milestones -- they are atop ECACHL standings for the first time, they are nationally ranked for the first time (No. 10 in USCHO.com poll) and they beat power Harvard for the first time in 20 years on Nov. 12.

The team is now just four wins away from setting a school record for victories and matched a school-record six-game winning streak before losing twice to Mercyhurst to end the first half of the season.

Faced with criticism when she was hired, Witt has learned to deal with a different kind of stress after those two losses.

"You lose a game (like the ones against Mercyhurst), and it's like we lost the national championship," Witt said. "You start to win, you start to make waves and people realize who you are. It's definitely more stressful to win ..."

Winning was something Duggan almost gave up on. A star player in Edmonton, Alberta, who grew up in skates and tried to emulate a guy named Gretzky, Duggan did nothing but win before coming to New Haven. But her freshman year at Yale, like Witt's, came with frustration.

"It got to the point where practice was the same all the time, it didn't feel like the staff was in a game to win," said Duggan, who leads the Bulldogs with seven goals and 13 points. "By the end of the season, I didn't like coming to the rink anymore."

But Witt has changed all of that. The team now expects to win. And with the expansion from a four-team to eight-team NCAA Tournament, that goal is within reach as well.

It won't be easy. Yale begins the second half with an eight-game road stint, including games against nationally ranked New Hampshire, St. Lawrence and Brown. The stretch ends with a rematch against Ivy rival Harvard in Cambridge.

Along with Duggan, Yale will continue to look to seniors Nicole Symington (11 points) and Alison Turney for leadership. The Bulldogs will also need strong goaltending from junior Sarah Love, who has a 2.38 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.

"I think the losses came at a good time for us, the kids got to go home and rest up," Witt said. "Now that they have a taste of what it's like to win, I don't think they'll want anything else."

Joy Russo is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. Send your comments/questions to joy.e.russo@espn.com.