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Natalie Darwitz, assistant coach for the Gophers women's hockey team, was running a clinic in Prior Lake last September and brought along some players to help as instructors. She introduced one of them as, "Taylor Heise, future All-American.''

"I remember she said that, and it's weird to think about,'' Heise said. "It would be cool.''

Not only is it cool, that All-America status and more is coming true for Heise, a senior forward for the nation's top-ranked team. The Lake City native leads Division I women's hockey with 64 points on 28 goals and 36 assists, and on Thursday was named both the WCHA Player of the Year and one of the final 10 candidates for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in women's college hockey.

On Saturday, Heise and the Gophers are the top seed in the WCHA Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena. They'll play Minnesota Duluth in a 1 p.m. semifinal, with No. 2 Ohio State facing No. 3 Wisconsin at 4 p.m. Sunday's final is at 1 p.m., and the winner receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Final Faceoff will feature strong teams, with the Gophers, two-time defending NCAA champion Wisconsin and 2021 Frozen Four semifinalists UMD and Ohio State. It also will have individual star power in past Kazmaier winners in Daryl Watts for the Badgers and Elizabeth Giguere for the Bulldogs. Heise, however, might be the star of stars.

"She's just so dominant every time she touches the ice, and teams have to be very aware of her to try to shut her down,'' Gophers coach Brad Frost said. "They haven't been able to do that much this year.''

Heise, center in red jersey, has 64 points in 36 games this season and her 1.78 points per game average is the highest in Division I women’s hockey.
Heise, center in red jersey, has 64 points in 36 games this season and her 1.78 points per game average is the highest in Division I women’s hockey.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

Success comes with help

That Heise has emerged as one of the best players in the country is a surprise to even her. She's had a solid career for the Gophers, earning WCHA All-Rookie honors as a freshman and third-team All-WCHA recognition as a sophomore but ranked third on her team in scoring last year. When asked what her reaction would be if someone told her before this season that she'd lead the country in scoring, Heise responded, "Nah, you're joking.''

That's where Darwitz comes in.

A three-time Olympian, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member and third-leading scorer in Gophers history, Darwitz returned to the Minnesota program in July after coaching Hamline to a pair of NCAA Division III Frozen Four appearances. Frost handed her and fellow assistant Jake Bobrowski the reins to the forwards while he guides the defensemen.

Right away, Darwitz knew Heise had more to give. Just how much more?

"Watching her in practice, she probably has the most raw skill I've seen since Krissy Wendell,'' Darwitz said of her Gophers and Olympic teammate and fellow Hall of Famer.

Darwitz served as an evaluator for the U.S. Olympic team as the roster for the Beijing Games was picked, and Heise tried out for the team but wasn't selected.

"They were looking for another center. I was like, 'Come on, Taylor,' '' Darwitz said. "You saw that skill in practice and how her hands were and the vision she has. When she got to games, she just didn't demand the puck enough. I kept telling her over the summer, 'You need to be a pit bull and you need to be the best player on the ice every time you hop over the boards.' ''

Heise appreciates Darwitz's encouragement and teaching. "Her being here is amazing, and she helps me every single day,'' Heise said. "What I try to accomplish, she's always there.''

Heise credits linemates Catie Skaja and Abigail Boreen for her success. “I wouldn’t be where I am by myself,” she said.
Heise credits linemates Catie Skaja and Abigail Boreen for her success. “I wouldn’t be where I am by myself,” she said.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

The fire is burning

The 2020-21 season didn't turn out the way the Gophers wanted. They finished 11-8-1 and were left out of the NCA tournament for the first time since 2007. And when Minnesota opened this season by being swept by Ohio State and losing an overtime game at Minnesota Duluth a week later, eyebrows were raised, at least externally.

"If you're going to go through hardship, going through it first and going through it fast is probably the best way to do it,'' Heise said. "We had faith in ourselves and didn't have any doubt, but anyone other than us doubted us."

Since that 1-3 start, the Gophers are 27-4-1, including a 5-2-1 mark against Wisconsin, Ohio State and UMD. One key move was putting Catie Skaja on the top line with Heise and Abigail Boreen. The trio of roommates has combined for 67 goals and 162 assists this season.

"I give most of my success to them,'' Heise said. "I wouldn't be where I am by myself.''

While Heise said she prides herself on doing the little things that help teammates excel, Darwitz wants her to be selfish — in a good way — too.

"That's been our thing every single game this year, 'You will be the best and most dominant player, every single shift,' '' Darwitz said. "I mentioned to her, 'Every time you take a faceoff, I want the player next to you to go, 'Whoa, Heise's out there.' She's done that, game in and game out.''

That's led to a great season for the Gophers, but Heise seeks something more – a Frozen Four championship on March 18 and 20 in State College, Pa.

"At the end of the day, I want to win a natty,'' she said, "and that's what I'm going for.''