RMU Colonials to face off against Minnesota March 29 in hockey tourney

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Colin South was still wearing a smile Sunday afternoon, some 14 hours after Robert Morris clinched its first NCAA tournament berth with a 7-4 victory against Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey Association championship in Rochester, N.Y.

South, the Colonials’ senior captain, and his company of worst-to-first conference champions caught barely a wink of sleep before they rallied back at Primanti Brothers in Moon Township to watch the NCAA tournament selection show at noon.

Robert Morris (19-17-5) will open as the No. 4 seed in the West Region in St. Paul, Minn., where it will face No. 1 seed and top-ranked Minnesota (25-6-6) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.

No. 2 St. Cloud State (21-10-5) and No. 3 Notre Dame (23-14-2) round out the regional lineup. The semifinal victors will meet in the regional final Sunday night to play for a spot in the Frozen Four at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

The Colonials will be heavy underdogs against the Golden Gophers, a perennial powerhouse playing just eight miles from their home arena.

“I don’t know what more we could ask for than to go up to St. Paul and have a shot at the Gophers in front of 20,000 people,” South said. It won’t be an entirely hometown crowd, either, he joked. “We might have 15 or 20 people rooting for us, too.”

South, a Quaker Valley graduate, grew up across the Ohio River from Robert Morris and saw the fledgling program’s rise the past 10 years. In truth, South said, he didn’t expect to wait this long for the Colonials’ first NCAA tournament appearance.

Robert Morris had come close plenty of times before — this year, it appeared, wouldn’t be one of them. On Jan. 1, the team was 2-12-2 and in the Atlantic Hockey cellar, but with the new year came the Colonials’ improbable rebirth.

“This is my last chance,” South said. “I really can’t put into words how happy I am that we were finally able to break through.”

Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley knows the feeling. He, too, had to wait.

In the early 1990s, Schooley and his Western Michigan teammates registered four consecutive winning seasons before earning a spot in the NCAA tournament his senior season.

On March 25, 1994, Schooley, a defenseman, stepped onto the ice for a first-round contest against Wisconsin at Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, N.Y. Almost exactly 20 years later, he can still recall every detail from that night and the 6-3 defeat.

Now, he’ll finally share the postseason experience with his own players and the program he has built from the ground up these past 10 years.

“It’s something that you’ll remember forever,” Schooley said Sunday, his voice wavering for a moment. “You remember those events. These are lifetime memories, and I’m so happy that our guys are getting to experience it.”

Shortly after the selection show ended, as reality started to set in and Robert Morris began sizing up its next challenge, South emerged from the restaurant with the Atlantic Hockey championship trophy tucked under his arm.

Schooley called after him: “Hey, where are you going with that trophy?”

“Home,” South yelled back over his shoulder. “The boys need some time with it.”

The coach laughed. These players, like he, had waited long enough for it.

“All right,” Schooley said with a nod. “Bring it back tomorrow.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published March 23, 2014 12:22 PM

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