New kids on the block
For the past 13 months since Derek Schooley was hired to coach the inaugural NCAA Division I men’s hockey team at Robert Morris University, he’s felt more like a general manager than a coach.
“This (past) year has been, ‘you name it, I’ve done it,’ ” Schooley said. “From ordering skate laces, tape, jerseys, I’ve done everything that every other existing program takes for granted. We’ve had to start from complete scratch.”
Now, more than two years after the Moon Township school first decided to add a hockey program, the Colonials are ready to go.
After a warm-up against the U.S. Under-18 team last night, they travel to Buffalo to take on Canisius College on Friday before hosting Canisius at the Island Sports Center for their home opener Saturday.
“Just walking around campus, people are asking when the first game is, and it gets the blood going through you, it gets you excited,” said goaltender Chris Boucher, a freshman from Orleans, Ontario. “It’s coming up really fast. It feels like not too long ago I was just starting school here, then, it was our first practice, and now, we’ll be playing our first game.
“I think everyone’s just as excited as I am. We’re anxious to get going.”
RMU hockey, from the start
Robert Morris University President Edward Nicholson is always looking for ways to move the school forward, athletic director Dr. Susan Hofacre said.
So roughly two years ago, he asked her to come up with a list of sports that might enhance enrollment and contribute to the geographical diversity of the student body. Hofacre identified six sports — women’s golf (added last year) women’s field hockey (added this year) men’s hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse (those teams will debut this spring) and women’s hockey (tentatively scheduled to start in 2005-06).
“This is a hockey area, with the Penguins and high school hockey and the success that the (former North American Hockey League junior team) Pittsburgh Forge had,” Hofacre said of hockey’s inclusion on the list. “There’s no other intercollegiate hockey in the area, so it made sense.”
The Board of Trustees approved the expansion, and Division I hockey at Robert Morris was born. To get from infancy to first steps, however, Hofacre needed to find a coach and somewhere to play.
She found her coach in Schooley, a 1994 Western Michigan graduate who was an assistant at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. A native of St. Louis who was a defenseman at Western Michigan, Schooley was a volunteer assistant at Cornell before joining Air Force in 1998.
This is the 33-year-old’s first head coaching job.
“We had a couple (of people) in mind that we were interested in, but we also did a job announcement because you never know who’s out there,” Hofacre said. “At the end of the search process, Derek was the front-runner, and he was the one we offered the job to.”
The university also purchased the Island Sports Center facility for $10 million and began renovations that included adding coaches’ offices, storage space, training rooms and two locker rooms.
Hofacre would not specify the total cost of adding the RMU hockey program, but said that in general terms, such a venture could run anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million — not including the price of the facility.
Then in January, the school accepted an invitation to join College Hockey America because the Northeast Conference, in which they compete in other sports, does not offer ice hockey as a championship sport. The Colonials replaced the University of Findlay, which dropped hockey, as the sixth team in the conference and in the process saved the CHA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Recruiting, for most coaches, means offering a proven record, perhaps a trend toward improvement, a list of teammates and a history to become a part of.
Schooley had none of that.
“The biggest challenge was getting the name of Robert Morris out there to the players we were recruiting,” he said. “We were kind of a mystery program.”
Schooley was not without his selling points for prospective student athletes, however. Whereas freshmen at other schools might not see game action until their second or even third years, Schooley could offer ice time right away.
“(I told them) I’ve got nobody on the first line, I’ve got nobody on the power play, I’ve got nobody on the penalty kill,” he said. “The opportunity to come in and step in right away and make a major impact on a program was a lure. It’s the excitement of building a new program. Players wanted to be a part of that.”
That was enough for many of the players who committed to the upstart team.
“I think the appeal of this whole thing was, when I talked to coach, he said you have a chance to put your stamp on a program, whereas if you go to a program that’s already established, you don’t get to leave your mark as much,” said Barnstable, Mass., native Kurt Wright, one of two juniors on the team and a co-captain to start the season. “That was the big thing for me, and it was very exciting.”
The opportunity to not join history but to create it was a strong draw for many players on the 2004-05 team.
“It’s exciting to be part of an inaugural season,” said David Boguslawski, a freshman forward from Cottage Grove, Minn. “To come here and start something new, 10 years down the road, you have an alumni game and you can say I was on that first team, I scored that first goal.”
58th out of 58
Outsiders’ expectations are predictable for a brand new team with a first-time head coach and 20 freshmen. Inside College Hockey picked Robert Morris dead last — 58th — in its preseason poll.
Most of the players understand. They just don’t agree.
“I think, as a whole, we personally know that we’re a lot better than that,” Wright said. “We are not a 58th team. We’re going to have ups and downs, but we’re going to get better every day. I think with the core group of guys that we have, we are strongly, strongly underestimated by the media.”
Wayne State University coach Bill Wilkinson knows what Schooley and his team will go through this year better than most. As the last men’s hockey program to join the NCAA before Robert Morris, the Warriors went 6-23-1 in 1999-2000, their first year in existence.
“Your whole team is young and inexperienced and probably not very strong physically compared to the teams you’re playing,” Wilkinson said of a first-year team. “Your expectations aren’t very high.”
In their fourth season, however, Wayne State improved to 21-17-2, won the CHA championship and earned the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska-Omaha started in 1997-98 and went 12-18-3 in its first year. They’ve since had two 20-win seasons, and in 1999-2000, came one win away from going to the NCAA Tournament.
And Niagara, which went 16-9-2 when they started in 1996-97, went 30-8-4 in 1999-2000 and upset New Hampshire in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re going to have a lot of growing pains because other than (sophomore forward) Doug Conley and Kurt Wright, we don’t have any college experience,” Boguslawski said. “But I think we’re going to go in the right direction toward winning a championship. That’s our goal, whether it’s this year or three years, is to hang a banner in this building.”
|Robert Morris University Colonials, NCAA Division I men’s hockey|
Record : First year
Head coach : Derek Schooley
Record : First year
Conference : College Hockey America.
Conference opponents : Niagara, Bemidji State, Alabama-Huntsville, Air Force, Wayne State.
Home rink : Island Sports Center at Neville Island.
Tickets : Season tickets (14 games) run from $84-$98 for adults and $56 for children 8 & under and seniors 65 & over. Individual games are $8 for reserved seating and $5 for general admission for adults, $4 for children and seniors. Call 412-262-8449.
Karen Price is a former freelancer.