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Kaz Watch: Wisconsin’s Alex Rigsby is mentally tough

01/13/2014, 3:00pm MST
By Doug Williams - Special to USAHockey.com

For more than three-plus seasons at the University of Wisconsin, Alex Rigsby has been an outstanding goaltender.

She has great reflexes, anticipation and a work ethic that drives her to constantly polish her game. She’s the Badgers’ all-time leader in saves and minutes played, is tied for most career victories and ranks No. 2 in shutouts.

But Rigsby, a four-year starter, has something else: an ability to shake off a bad game or a bad play, learn from it and move on.

“Once you get to this level, what separates you from the other individuals is your mental toughness and your ability to focus on what’s ahead and not getting caught up in the last save, but always looking to the next save,” she said.

Like a baseball closer who gives up a home run in the ninth or an NFL cornerback who gets burned on a deep route, a goaltender has to be able to quickly rebound and turn a negative into a positive.

Rigsby learned that lesson as a freshman in the 2010-11 season.

The Badgers were 8-0 when they went into Minneapolis in early November, but the Gophers beat them 7-5 in Game 1 of a two-game set. The next day, Rigsby was back in goal to make 25 saves as Wisconsin won, 5-0.

“I let up like three goals in the first period on 10 shots, so coach pulled me,” she recalled. “And the next day I came back and I focused. That night I thought, ‘You know, I’m better than this. This is the game that I need to play in.’ So the next day I came back and I got a shutout. I think that was a game-changer in my career as a Badger.”

That loss against the University of Minnesota would be her only defeat as a freshman. Rigsby finished that season with a 27-1-2 record — leading the nation in winning percentage (.933) — plus seven shutouts and a 1.76 goals-against average for a team that went 37-2-2 and won the NCAA championship. Rigsby made 15 saves in the Badgers’ 4-1 victory over Boston University in the Frozen Four finale.

That was just the start of a terrific career. As a sophomore she was 33-5-2 with a 1.43 GAA. As a junior she was 23-10-2 and allowed 1.49 goals per game. This season she’s 8-2-2 with four shutouts and a career-best 1.03 GAA, which ranks No. 2 in NCAA Division I.

Unfortunately for Rigsby and the Badgers, she hasn’t played since Nov. 30 when she suffered a sprained knee in a victory against the University of Minnesota Duluth. She says she leaned over to make a save, felt a pop in her knee and knew immediately she’d done some damage.

The Badgers were fortunate on two counts, however. First, the injury occurred just before the team took almost a four-week break. So Rigsby missed just two games before the break and four since play resumed. She expects to be cleared to play soon. It’s possible she could miss just a handful of games.

And second, freshman Ann-Renee Desbiens has stepped in to play very well in Rigsby’s absence. Desbiens — who’s played in 10 games to Rigsby’s 13 — is No. 5 in the nation in GAA at 1.16 and is 9-1-0 for Wisconsin, which is ranked No. 2 in the nation at 17-3-2.

While Rigsby is eager to return to action, she’s happy to see Desbiens get a chance to show what she can do. It gives the Badgers a nice 1-2 punch in goal, and Rigsby says she felt an immediate connection to her younger teammate because both played boys’ hockey all the way up until college.

“Just having that experience, we talked about that, I kind of helped her, gave her some advice, knowing that it’s a different pace,” Rigsby said of Desbiens’ transition to the college game. “You have to be a little more patient about everything. She’s a competitive person, so it’s fun to have her on the team.”

This season, Rigsby won her 91st game, tying Jessie Vetter — a Kazmaier Award winner and Olympic silver medalist for Team USA in 2010 — for the school’s all-time lead in victories.

With her first victory after she returns, she’ll be No. 1.

“I didn’t think anyone was going to come near [Vetter’s record],” Wisconsin coach Mark Johnson told a reporter for the school’s newspaper. “But along comes Alex, who’s gotten better every year.”

To Rigsby, who grew up in Wisconsin and has long admired Vetter, it’s an honor to be in Vetter’s company. But she’s more interested in helping the Badgers get back to the Frozen Four.

“I don’t go out there focusing on, ‘I’m going to break this record or break that record,’ ” she said. “I mean, I’ve never been one to look at stats necessarily, either, so I think it just makes it more fun. Go out there and play your game and then good things will happen.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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