Under the traditional measures of success -- wins, losses, etc. -- the situation surrounding the Robert Morris women's hockey program was daunting. But, when Paul Colontino became the Colonials' coach in 2011, he had a different vision.
Where some saw a struggling program in relative infancy, one that had most recently gone 6-21-7, he saw a promising foundation. Where many viewed the program through the scope of results, there were harder-to-define variables that Colontino knew would be positive building blocks.
"Everybody was really eager to do better ---- not necessarily winning a championship that first year, but everybody wanted to see the program do better and everybody bought into the system," Colontino said. "It made life a lot easier. It was just like 'Hey, this is the way we need to do it, let's start chipping away at it.' We did that and then we instantly started to see the benefits."
In his third season, Colontino's hopes for the Colonials are starting to fulfill his vision in a bigger way than perhaps even he imagined.
Robert Morris (18-3-1) has steamrolled through this season and finds itself in the top 10 of the national polls. Most tellingly, it is No. 6 in the PairWise rankings, a statistical tool designed to predict which teams will get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.
For the Colonials, it has been a swift 21/2 years of transformation. After all, things were not always this way.
After its debut in 2005, the program went through traditional growing pain. From 2006 to 2009, the Colonials went 46-88-7, never winning more than 12 games in a season. But there was a problem -- the team's fortunes never improved and, after a six-win 2010-11 season, Colontino was hired as coach.
Things quickly began to change.
It began with a combined 34-24-7 record in Colontino's first two seasons and has since grown.
"My freshman year, we struggled a lot, and it's tough coming to the rink when you're not really winning," senior Anneline Lauziere said. "The program has come so far."
As a former assistant at programs such as North Dakota and Mercyhurst -- the latter a perennial power in Robert Morris' conference, College Hockey America -- Colontino saw what it took to build a winner and tried to translate such lessons to his current job.
"You peel pieces off from everywhere you've been and you try to apply them at this place," he said. "It's like anything -- you're just trying to take the best of everything and then make it work within your system, with what you have, with what's available to be the best you can be."
That early success has mushroomed this season as the Colonials achieved their first national ranking and recorded wins against the likes of Mercyhurst and Boston University. The team's next victory will tie a program single-season record -- and there are still 12 games left in the regular season. With each win, the team's confidence grows.
"That kind of hit us last month when we hit 10th and we were just thinking 'Wow, we hit the ratings,' " junior Rebecca Vint said. "That shows that we can compete with the top teams in the nation and that we are a top team."
There's still work to be done, and the Colonials' goal of making the eight-team NCAA tournament field is far from a guarantee.
Yet for all of Robert Morris' success, nobody around the program seems astonished by its rapid ascension.
"It's not like winning the lottery where you pick numbers and, when it comes up, you're surprised that you won," Colontino said. "These guys are putting the time in on a consistent basis and making a lot of sacrifices.
"When their number comes up, they're not surprised because it's an educated number. It's what they've been working for."
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.