HAMILTON VILLAGE -- While much of Western New York's attention was transfixed on the Buffalo-area Cinderellas marching to college basketball's Big Dance, a Niagara Falls native was quietly making a bid for a national championship of her own in women's ice hockey.
Olivia Zafuto's Colgate Raiders came within a whisker of achieving that lofty goal, falling to top-ranked Clarkson 2-1 in overtime of the title game. The little school from central New York finished its season with a best-ever mark of 34-6-1 and ranked number two in the country, its highest-ever final ranking. Zafuto was one of two Lady Raiders named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team.
It was the thrill of a hockey lifetime for Zafuto but hopefully far from the last memorable moment on the ice for the 5-foot-6 junior defenseman with Olympic -- and possibly even professional -- aspirations.
"Olivia is just scratching the surface of what she is able to do in terms of carrying the play" in a hockey game, marveled Colgate head coach Greg Fargo. "Her play has evolved a tremendous amount over the past three years. This year, in my opinion, she was one of the best defensemen in college hockey."
Fargo said that Zafuto "is not your typical defender" in that she brings "extremely dynamic" offensive skills to the table. "She loves to rush the puck and get involved offensively," he said.
Known to her teammates as "OZ," Zafuto finished tied for fourth on her team in scoring with 33 points, including 11 goals, two of which were game-winners. But she wasn't strictly offensive-minded -- in the mold of, say, a Chris Chelios, she put up very respectable offensive numbers while also leading her team with 56 penalty minutes.
Yes, she has a penchant for the physical side of the game, as well. More on that later.
"This year was by far my favorite" of a 16-year career in hockey, said Zafuto, daughter of Steve and Maria Chille-Zafuto of Niagara Falls. "The chemistry on this team was just so great. (The national championship) was our goal from the day of our first meeting ... it was crazy to think we made it there."
The Raiders rode Zafuto's slick skating and puck-moving skills to a thrilling, double-overtime win over then second-ranked Wisconsin to kick off the Frozen Four tournament in Minneapolis. It was the second-longest game in Frozen Four history, not ending til nearly midnight.
"It was unbelievable, a very fun game," said Zafuto, who collected three points during the Frozen Four weekend. She set up her team's only goal in the championship game.
"It was back-and-forth all game," Zafuto said of the title tilt, the fourth meeting of the season between the two teams. Clarkson had won two of the previous three, including the ECAC championship game, but the teams were pretty evenly matched and the Raiders knew they had a good shot if they just played their game.
"There were equal chances for both sides," Zafuto recalled. "One bounce in overtime went their way and that was it." Although the outcome was heartbreaking, she said that she and her teammates couldn't help but feel proud of their accomplishments.
"We wanted to win, of course, but it was hard not to be happy, making it that far," she said. "It was definitely awesome. The atmosphere, with a bunch of pep bands there ... we had a lot of people rooting for us. The texts, the calls. It was crazy. It really amped us up for the game."
Zafuto has been playing hockey since age 5, when she dropped dance ("it was too slow") in favor of following in older brother Stephen's footsteps on the ice. She was one of only a handful of girls playing (there were no organized girls programs in the area at the time, her mom said) and even played on her brother's team a couple times before moving to all-girls hockey in the eighth grade.
"It was awesome playing against the guys," she said, even when it involved hitting. "I loved (body checking). I wish you could check in girls hockey." To this day, Zafuto is known for her physicality on the ice, prefering to "rub out" players on the boards. She traces that love for the physical side of the game back to her days of playing against boys.
"It helped bring my game to where it is now," she said.
Unable to convince the powers-that-be to launch a girls ice hockey program at Niagara Falls High School, she gravitated to Nichols School in Buffalo, where coach Scott Welch immediately recognized her as a potential Division-1 prospect. She followed an extremely successful career at Nichols (where she also lettered in softball and field hockey) with a full-ride scholarship to Colgate.
She said she was attracted by the mix of academics and athletics at the private liberal arts college, and was equally impressed with the "community vibe" given off by the faculty, students, and the entire area in general.
"Plus, it's one of the top institutions in the country," she added.
She's studying psychology and education with hopes of following "pretty much my entire extended family" into the Western New York educational system. Mom Maria is an elementary school principal and dad Steve is a prep school counselor, both in the Niagara Falls School District, where several other family members also toil in various capacities.
Steve remains active in local men's recreational hockey leagues. He got his kids off on the right foot in hockey by making backyard ice rinks when they were young.
"We have vivid memories of the two of them playing on our backyard rink in some spirited shinny games," mother Maria said.
"My brother used to beat up on me a little bit," Olivia laughed, recalling their "friendly but very competitive" relationship that made her a little more hard-nosed.
Mom was a skater but didn't engage in the family hockey battles; still she was -- and remains -- her daughter's supreme supporter.
"We are obviously very proud of her and (are) her biggest fans," mom said. ""She had an obvious passion to play hockey. Her motivation and determination carved the path to where she is today."
Coming so close to the national championship this year will only fuel Zafuto and her Colgate teammates in their quest next season. The players were so close that it was difficult to see it all come to an end, she said -- at least until they get back on the ice again in the fall.
A return trip to the Frozen Four as a senior is among her hockey goals, but it may not be biggest.
"(Playing in) the Olympics is the dream," she said. "They say to dream big ... Ideally, that's where I want to be." Beyond that she would love to continue playing on a professional level, with the ultimate thrill being to pull on the colors of her hometown Buffalo Beauts.
"I definitely don't want to give up playing," she said recently. "But I love working wth kids," so coaching could also be a possibility somewhere down the road.
Either way, mom will be delighted.
"We love watching her play," she said, "(but) our only goal is for her to be happy."