The Robert Morris University men’s ice hockey program wants to climb to the top of the college hockey mountain.
The Colonials made pretty good progress this season.
In only its third year as a Division-I program, Robert Morris was two periods away from qualifying for the NCAA tournament this season.
The Colonials’ season was a huge success filled with many milestones that included a win over Notre Dame, the nation’s No. 1 team, and other ranked squads. The program’s success continued in the first round of the College Hockey America playoffs as it knocked off two-time defending champ Bemidji State, which had played in the past four CHA championship games.
However, Alabama-Huntsville shocked Robert Morris in the championship game on Sunday. The Colonials saw a 4-0 first-period lead evaporate as Alabama-Huntsville rallied for a 5-4 overtime triumph.
“We did a lot of good things during this year. You go back to some of the big nonconference wins against Notre Dame and Princeton. We had a good stretch where we won four in a row in our league, too,” RMU coach Derek Schooley said. “To go out to the league tournament and beat Bemidji, which had won the last two championships and played in the last four championship games, was a big feather in our cap.
“It’s nice to look at all positives, but it’s tough right now, because of the sting of the loss, to realize where we’ve come in three years. Three years ago at this time we weren’t even a program,” he continued. “The expectations weren’t many from the college hockey world, but we had high expectations. It would have been really neat for a third-year program to advance to the NCAA tournament. You just don’t know when you’ll get the opportunity again, which is the disappointing thing. But, to look back to where we started and where we have come, you have to realize we have done a lot of good things here and we have a lot of world-class kids and really good people. Without them, we wouldn’t have had this kind of success in three years.”
Robert Morris (14-18-2) would have been the first team with a losing record to make it to the NCAA tournament since Colorado College in 1978. That team was 18-21-1 when it earned the bid and finished 18-22-1. The honor now goes to Alabama-Huntsville (13-19-3).
In addition, the Colonials would have been the first team in NCAA history to make the tournament in its third season as a varsity program. Both Niagara and Wayne State – CHA members – made it in their fourth seasons. Robert Morris can join them next year if it wins the conference championship.
“The world isn’t an easy place. When you get to the top, people are always trying to knock you back,” Schooley said. “We need to keep moving forward. It’s how we respond from a successful year and a stinging playoff loss.”
Despite suffering a rash of injuries to key players, the Colonials went 5-3-1 to close out the regular season. Robert Morris saw captain and top offensive defenseman Chris Kaufman, one of its top scorers in David Boguslawski and forward Logan Bittle all knocked out of the lineup in the tail-end of the regular season. Bittle came back for the playoffs, but played with a cast on one of has hands.
“We were really beat up and injured with 13 guys out with end of the year injuries,” Schooley said. “We lost our captain and our best defenseman for the last 10 games. We lost one of our top goal scorers, too.
“We were really beat up. That’s the toll of an NCAA Division-I season,” he continued. “We fought through it. We came together and played very hard in the semifinal game.”
However, those injuries allowed some of the program’s talented youngsters get valuable playing time.
“We had some freshmen step up. Defenseman Dave Cowan really stepped up in the second half of the year. J.C. Velasquez didn’t have any points, but took a big step forward as a freshman. Kyle Frieday established himself in the lineup, too,” Schooley said. “We had a lot of players step up in those absences, but you never can substitute for experience, especially with your captain being out.”
The Colonials will lose some key players from this year’s squad to graduation.
“We had great leadership from our guys. Doug Conley had three great years here. Brian Mills, who is very solid and steady defenseman. Joe Tuset, a senior goaltender, had a great second half of the year. Joey Olson was our first recruit ever here and he graduated a year early. Aaron Clarke is a second-team all-league selection. I can’t say enough about the contribution from our senior class.”
Nevertheless, Robert Morris returns plenty of talent in junior Sean Berkstresser, sophomore Chris Margott and Cowan, who all earned earn slots on the CHA all-tournament team. Berkstresser, an Apollo native, is a local product.
“We all along believed we were a very quality team. We had built ourselves for our third and fourth years down the stretch,” Schooley said. “We have some good talent coming back and our recruiting is going very well. We’re very pleased with how our recruiting has gone.
“We just need to keep moving forward and keep looking toward the future and put what we have done positively and negatively past us,” he continued. “The future is bright. We’ll have 14 seniors next year and I am very excited about where we’re going.”
The program hopes to continue its – as well as college hockey’s – growth in the Pittsburgh area.
“With a new arena, maybe a Frozen Four is in Pittsburgh’s future,” Schooley said. “It’d be very neat to have the Penguins host a Frozen Four at the new arena. It would be fantastic for college hockey in this area.”