Lofty goals for Robert Morris hockey this season
It wasn't always like this.
Atlantic Hockey Association teams weren't always competitive on a national scale. But in the waning weeks of the 2012-13 conference tournament season, the AHA had multiple teams vying for a spot in the 16-team NCAA Tournament. Robert Morris was chief among them, needing an at-large bid to even have a chance of getting to the Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center.
The Colonials didn't get that opportunity. Not after setting a program record for wins (20). Not after defeating eventual national runner-up Quinnipiac in the season's opening weekend. Not after winning the inaugural Three Rivers Classic in which the Colonials knocked off then-No. 5 Miami (Ohio).
And to see Yale find its way into the NCAA Tournament with the final at-large bid and pull off the most unlikely of runs in winning its first national title? That put RMU's motivation on ice.
“Their run solidified the belief that anything is possible,” said RMU senior captain Colin South, a Quaker Valley product. “The way they played at the end of the year was just incredible.”
For South, Yale's run was almost as unpredictable as his career at RMU has been. With his brother, Furman, a sophomore on the team, South arrived at RMU during a transition period. The Colonials were to be first-year members of the AHA and had gone 10-19-6 in 2009-10, the last season for the College Hockey America conference. Since then, RMU hasn't had a losing season.
“I don't think when I committed that I could have seen it going this well,” South said.
The same goes for his career. South said he felt out of place when he was a freshman. Even so, he played in 30 of 35 games, recording 10 points on five goals and five assists. As a junior and assistant captain last season, South had 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists), fourth best on the team.
“He's just matured as the program's matured,” RMU coach Derek Schooley said. “I wouldn't say he's a pure goal-scorer. I wouldn't say he's a pure setup man. He's just a very consistent hockey player.”
But it was consistency that plagued South last season — he consistently was not scoring.
South went 16 games from early November to early February without a goal. He finally scored what was his sixth goal of the year Feb. 2 against Sacred Heart.
“I think that was the turning point — to still do other things effectively to help the team win some games,” South said. “When I finally did score a goal, it just gave me so much confidence that there's more to the game. That really helped clear my mind.”
And RMU likely will need South to maintain his yearly offensive improvement. The Colonials lost two of their top three scorers: Adam Brace, the program's fourth all-time leading scorer with 92 points in three seasons, and Zach Hervato (29 points). Junior Cody Wydo is their top returning scorer (21-12-33).
The Colonials also will need to replace goalie Eric Levine's 19 wins and .929 save percentage. Terry Shafer, a sophomore, returns after playing 194 minutes in net last season. Freshmen Brandon Lane and Dalton Izyk also will lobby for playing time.
“You're not going to replace Eric Levine,” Schooley said. “But if you can get consistent quality goaltending, whichever one of the three steps forward, that's a good thing.”
RMU will play five nonconference games, including hosting the Three Rivers Classic. The second-year tournament will include Penn State, five-time national champion Boston College and Bowling Green, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's alma mater, on Dec. 27-28.
But South said the Colonials can't lose sight of the ever-strengthening AHA. Six AHA teams were recognized in preseason national poll, with Niagara ranked No. 20 and five others, including Robert Morris and Mercyhurst, receiving votes.
“We don't have the high-profile schools,” South said. “We don't play in the buildings (those) programs do. But look at the track record. The conference is getting a lot stronger from where it was a few years ago, and people are finally starting to realize that.”
Matt Rosenberg is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.