This wasn’t supposed to be the season Robert Morris reached its first NCAA tournament. Coach Derek Schooley knew it; his players did, too. That’s what made the ride all the more remarkable.
Tuesday morning, three days after the Colonials (19-18-5) fell, 7-3, to top-ranked Minnesota (26-6-6) in the West Region opener in St. Paul, Minn., Schooley reflected on the worst-to-first marvel of a season.
In his 10 seasons at Robert Morris, the Colonials had been one win away from an NCAA tournament berth twice before but lost in overtime each time. This time, they were 6-1 in the Atlantic Hockey Association playoffs to punch their tickets to the tournament.
“It exorcised a lot of ghosts and demons of past playoff failures,” Schooley said.
“I’m happy for our alums and for our players, because everybody knew they had started something from scratch and had finally realized the ultimate goal.”
After spotting the Golden Gophers a 4-0 lead Saturday, Robert Morris rallied to close the deficit to two goals before Minnesota scored twice in the final two minutes to finish off the underdog Colonials.
“Our team was never going to quit,” Schooley said. “They weren’t going to be denied. Until they told us we couldn’t play anymore, we were going to play.”
The finale was, in Schooley’s mind, rather indicative of the season as a whole.
After back-to-back 3-2 losses against Bowling Green and Penn State in the Three Rivers Classic at Consol Center in late December, the Colonials were 2-12-2 and stuck in the Atlantic Hockey cellar. They were 17-6-3 the rest of the way.
“What appeared so bleak from a hockey perspective turned into a motivational story about the human spirit,” Schooley said. “Over time, you’ll increasingly appreciate how well your guys responded — how they fought, how they clawed, how they didn’t give up.”
The team recently voted for its postseason awards. The Chris Kushneriuk Award, given to the most inspirational player, had 13 or 14 nominees, Schooley said. And none of this was supposed to happen, remember? The Colonials strength — still — is its youth.
Robert Morris will return its top seven scorers next season, including junior forward Cody Wydo, who scored a school-record 31 goals this season to become the Colonials all-time leading scorer with 65 career goals. Wydo also was named the AHA player of the week four times.
Schooley said the Colonials will return 12 of their top 13 forwards, five of their top seven defensemen, and both goaltenders.
The team’s make-up “boded well for the present, but it also bodes extremely well for the future of this program,” Schooley said.
Sophomore goalie Terry Shafer led Robert Morris to the playoffs, and freshman Dalton Izyk carried the team to the NCAA tournament after Shafer had a leg injury in the first round of the conference tournament.
Making the tournament once took a decade — and it won’t get any easier now.
“There’s going to be a little bit of a target on our backs,” Schooley said. “Anytime you make the tournament, people remember that and will play a little harder against you.”
Having now reached the summit, it’s time to start the climb again.
“The bar has been set,” Schooley said. “This is not a one-hit wonder. You want this to be an every year thing. We’ve put the doubters to rest about getting to the tournament. Now, it’s time to do it over and over and over again.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.