Behind the scenes of Robert Morris women's hockey's championship run
They are the hidden gem of the Pittsburgh sports scene. A championship team, at that.
It should be no surprise, then, that the members of the Robert Morris University women's hockey team have an edge. I mean, they are tough. They play a physical, skillful yet selfless game. I saw firsthand, having spent the past several weeks with them, their dedication, resilience and compassion for each other.
For more than 20 years, I have photographed every major event involving Pittsburgh's professional sports teams. James Harrison's improbable 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII? I was there in Tampa, Fla.
Sidney Crosby hoisting the Stanley Cup for a second time? I snapped photos of him on the ice in San Jose, Calif.
When seemingly shaken Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto dropped the ball on the mound at PNC Park in the Pirates' long-awaited return to the MLB playoffs? There too.
The Robert Morris Women's hockey team takes the ice before playing RIT on Feb. 10, 2017, at RMU Island Sports Center.
Robert Morris' Natalie Fraser gathers the puck as Maeve Garvey fends off RIT's Carla Goodwin.
This assignment was different. The professional sports scene has become sterile, in a sense, thanks to limited access and athletes' increasingly rehearsed behavior. The Robert Morris women's hockey team was different. It allowed full access, whether it was 7 a.m. practices or postgame locker room sessions.
The players were a little taken aback by me at first. I'm almost 58 years old. I'm 6 feet, 2 inches tall and have a beard that's about a foot long and mostly gray.
Maggie LaGue (foreground) and Sarah Quaranta work on their sticks before playing Syracuse in the CHA championship Saturday, March 4, 2017, at HarborCenter in Buffalo, N.Y.
Winger Amanda Pantaleo carries her equipment bag to the bus for the ride to Buffalo, N.Y.
It didn't take long for some of the players to trust me — when you show up for early-morning practice, you gain some credibility. But I think it also came from knowing the game. Having been around athletes most of my life — I even played football at Pitt back in the day — I could tell which players occupied which position. So I called them out on it. Particularly in hockey, some players' behavior — such as goalies — gives away where they play. Soon, the group noticed me less and less.
The sticks of the Robert Morris women's hockey team are lined up before playing Syracuse in the CHA championship.
Goaltender Jessica Dodds listens to music as she gets ready to play RIT.
The team's relaxed nature is a reflection of the man who guides this family-like outfit, soft-spoken College Hockey America Coach of the Year Paul Colontino. A former college hockey player and a 2000 graduate of Mercyhurst, he has an even-keeled approach that relies upon encouragement rather than criticism. His desired style of play relies on precision and speed. He is aided behind the scenes by the glue that allows the program to run so seamlessly: team manager Andrew Wisneski and head trainer Lindsay Gilarski.
His players feed off his positivity, and they're full of physical prowess and personality.
They are led by captain Rikki Meilleur, a woman of few words but confident action. She is the leader in any team activity, be it practice, preparing for a big trip or rallying her teammates in the moments before a game. She is supported by a cast of characters, from the outgoing to the bubbly to the competitive to a fault.
Coach Paul Colotino speaks with the team captain Rikki Meilleur (10) and alternates Amanda Pantaleo (28), Maeve Garbey and Brittany Howard before going into the looker room after beating Lindenwood in the CHA semifinals.
Robert Morris' Leah Carey takes out RIT's Emma Hare.
There are speedy CHA Player of the Year Brittany Howard and serious conference Rookie of the Year Jaycee Gebhard, who stand just 5 feet, 4 inches and 5-3, respectively. Then there's almost 6-foot defensive specialist Kirsten Welsh, who can lead the rush end to end and played on boys' teams before coming to Robert Morris. Look cross at defensemen Maggie LaGue and Leah Carey or forward Emma Low-A-Chee, and you might just find yourself knocked into last week. Resident camera mugger and backup goalie Lauren Bailey and former RMU player and assistant coach Chelsea Walkland keep the atmosphere lighthearted, particularly during warmups.
The team shares a lighter moment with assistant coach Chelsea Walkland before warmups prior to the CHA championship game.
Associate head coach Logan Bittle (left) and head coach Paul Colontino stand on the bench during a game against RIT.
Like some professional teams, the Colonials go through their pregame rituals: They play soccer outside the locker room, run short sprints during warmups and tape their sticks. But then it's time to put on their game faces. That's when you will find goaltender Jessica Dodds wearing her Beats headphones and sitting alone in a corner of the locker room.
The scenes during the CHA tournament in Buffalo, were no different.
Jaycee Gebhard (left) and Lauren Bailey keep the ball in the air as they warm up before playing Syracuse in the CHA championship game.
Robert Morris' Sarah Quaranta (bottom) looks up after heading a soccer ball during warmups before playing Penn State on Friday, Feb. 17, 2017.
Howard, Gebhard and Colontino collected their awards during a banquet, then it was onto the games during the weekend. First up was Lindenwood in the semifinals. RMU had recently defeated Lindenwood to earn the No. 1 seed. The game was back and forth, as RMU scored first and then advanced to the title game thanks to Jessica Gazzola's game-winner in the third period.
The Colonials drew Syracuse in the final. The Orange defeated Rochester Institute of Technology, 4-0, in the other semifinal. The RMU pep band played as the Colonials checked out of their hotel and boarded the bus for HarborCenter.
Kirsten Welsh takes out Lindenwood's Cierra Paisley during the CHA semifinals.
Amanda Pantaleo fights to the net in front of Lindenwood's Tae Otte.
The pregame locker room was quiet. But when the puck dropped, the players never stopped. Gazzola jammed home what proved to be the game-winning goal in the first period. And Dodds continually slammed the door on a possible Syracuse comeback, eventually securing the shutout. By the time Howard blistered a third-period shot into the back of the net, it was a matter of counting down to the raising the CHA Cup, RMU's second conference championship in six years.
Standing next to the players' parents who were ready to rush onto the ice, you could feel their pride but also their relief.
Maggie LaGue celerates with Brittany Howard after Howard's goal against Lindenwood in the CHA semifinals.
Brittany Howard's shot beats Syracuse goaltender Abbey Miller in the CHA championship game.
Three ... two ... one ...
The RMU bench cleared, and the celebration began. Equipment flew into the air and onto the ice. Players piled on top of each other. Hugs were abundant.
Then the players raised the cup. And, of course, they drenched Colontino with Gatorade.
The celebration continued in the locker room. Selfies were snapped, and Queen's "We are the Champions" blared.
Maggie LaGue kisses the CHA Cup after beating Syracuse.
The team sings along with Queen's "We Are The Champions" in the locker room.
Champions, indeed. And an eventual No. 8 final ranking in the U.S. Women's College Ice Hockey rankings.
What a privilege to be a witness to it.
The team's equipment is scattered on the ice while they celebrate winning the CHA championship.