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RMU hockey confident heading into 1st NCAA Tournament

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 11:16 p.m.
Robert Morris hockey team hoists the Atlantic Hockey Association's championship trophy after defeating Canisius in the conference finals on March 22.
RMU Athletics
RMU's Colin South passes the puck up ice.

A new year offers a chance to start over.

The Robert Morris men's hockey team approached 2014 just that way.

After going 2-12-2 to start the season, the Colonials entered the calendar year with a clean slate. They refocused and went on a 17-5-3 run to claim the program's first Atlantic Hockey Association championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

The Colonials (19-17-5), who have only four seniors, earned a spot in the West Regional at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. They meet Minnesota (25-6-6) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be shown live on ESPN2.

“I am so proud and excited for our players,” coach Derek Schooley said. “Our players could have packed it in and hung up the season when we were 2-12-2. They believed. They bought into everything we were trying to accomplish. We are really excited. They deserve all the credit in the world. I am so proud they were able to put it all together.”

It started on a four-game road trip. The Colonials, who also used that voyage for team-building activities, won three of four games.

“Everyone really bought into the process,” said senior captain Colin South, a Quaker Valley graduate. “We had a tough first half of the year, and we were treating that as a completely different season, and everyone really bought into the idea that we were starting 0-0 Jan. 1. Guys were excited because we got off to a good start and we were able to continue it and maintain a positive mentality that we would win every game. The playoffs were no different.”

At one point, Robert Morris went 7-0-2. The team has not lost consecutive games since December.

“We have a lot of confidence. Instead of one-goal losses, we've flipped those into wins,” Schooley said. “I think the guys realize we had to take it up another gear, work ethic-wise. We were close, but close was getting us one-goal losses. When we started working a little harder, we started seeing results and then it was easier to work that hard.

“We have a little bit of swagger, there's no doubt. That comes with achieving the record we have throughout the second half of the year. Our guys are excited about going to the national tournament.”

Robert Morris is not satisfied with just making an appearance, though.

“We are thrilled about the opportunity. We're going there to play our hockey. Our team has done a tremendous job looking forward and not back. Just like when we erased our standings board in January, it is erased now,” Schooley said. “We have to go out and play. We can't get caught up in the magnitude of the situation or the name recognition of the team we're playing or the size of the building. We have to go out and be ready to compete

“If we work as hard as we can, we give ourselves a chance.”

Throughout the program's 10 years, the Colonials have produced upset wins over highly ranked programs such as Notre Dame, Miami (Ohio) and Boston University. They're hoping to add the Golden Gophers to that list.

“We don't really view this as a game where there's a ton of pressure on us,” South said. “At the same time, we're not just happy to be there. We want to do well. We want to win some games.

“This is the time of year where you want to get greedy. You don't want to be satisfied. We have played these types of teams before, and these are the types of games everyone gets so excited about. You want to prove that you belong on this stage.”

With a deep lineup and strong goaltending, Robert Morris appears to be built for postseason success. Junior Cody Wydo is second in the country with 30 goals, but the top line of Scott Jacklin, Shaler product Zac Lynch and Wydo has racked up 133 points. Six other forwards (Greg Gibson, Brandon Denham, Jeff Jones, David Friedmann, Matt Cope and South) have 21 points or more.

The team's 17 wins in the second half of the season are the most in the NCAA during that span. Also, since January, the Colonials have averaged 3.92 goals per game, the highest scoring average in the nation.

“You look at the distribution of our goals the second half of the year, not only have we had secondary scoring but our third and fourth lines are chipping in also,” South said. “Not to take anything away from Cody Wydo — he's had a great year and he's one of the top players in college hockey — but a lot of guys have stepped up. Our goaltending has been great. It's definitely a complete team effort. Everyone is so excited to play. We just want to get up to Minnesota and have our shot at playing the Gophers.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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