MADISON, Wis. — From sunrise until puck drop on Saturday in the capital of Wisconsin, Robert Morris won.
Make no mistake, the Colonials lost the game that followed, getting bested in decisive fashion by the Badgers, 7-0. But Robert Morris won anyway, just by being there.
The Colonials, already an unlikely choice as one of the nation’s top eight teams, were given the unenviable task of traveling over 600 miles northwest, into the home of one of the most successful women’s hockey programs in existence.
The Badgers are as storied as a team gets in NCAA women’s hockey. They’ve won four national championships, made 11 Frozen Fours in 11 NCAA Tournaments, won seven WCHA conference tournaments and six regular-season titles. They’ve had four players win the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s best female hockey player — and have the odds-on favorite to win it in 2017, as well. They’ve had 10 Olympians, and to top it all off, they’ve led the country in attendance eight of the last nine years.
But early Saturday afternoon, with the RMU Pep Band blasting in from the stands and the team’s few hundred fans doing their part to put a dent in the roar of the over 2,400 packed into La Bahn Arena, for just a little while, the Colonials were on an even footing with perhaps the greatest women’s hockey program in existence.
It didn’t last long. The Badgers struck first 1:48 into the game and really pulled away midway through the second. Clearly, Wisconsin is a better, deeper team, and it would have taken a nearly perfect game from the Colonials to have a chance for an upset. But the important takeaway is that for the first time in program history, the Colonials rose to a level where they could stare greatness in the face.
In his post-game press conference, head coach Paul Colontino compared it to a child learning to take its first steps. It’s something he’s getting familiar with in his personal and professional lives, as his son is about to turn one.
“Taking that first step is often sometimes the hardest,” he said. “He’s been crawling really fast and he’s standing quite a bit. People keep telling us that it’s great when they start walking, but watch out, because once they do, they start running. It’s the kind of a team this year that might be just like that.
“But we took the first step, and with that, I think we have a group that’s ready to run. We couldn’t be prouder of this group that we are today. It’s a tough loss. Our season doesn’t hinge around one game. Did we want to win it? Absolutely. We want to go to the Frozen Four. We want to win a national championship. Things do take time and we’re not going to forget what this team did through eight months this season, which was just raising the bar in all aspects for RMU.”
This Robert Morris team has indeed raised the bar. They won the program’s first CHA regular-season title, knocking rival Mercyhurst from the perch it had so often occupied. They won the CHA tournament for the second time and made the program’s first NCAA Tournament. They also became a family.
“Obviously, today wasn’t the ending we wanted,” said senior captain Rikki Meilleur. “As a senior, these past four years have been unreal. This last year has been a group I’ll never forget. They’ve been my second family.”
That’s why there were few dry eyes as the Colonials left the dressing room for the flight back to Pittsburgh. Meilleur, Jessica Dodds, Maeve Garvey, Mackenzie Johnston and Mikaela Lowater have made such an impact on the program in their time as Colonials that they will certainly be missed. But that impact will also be their legacy.
“Some of the things that these seniors brought away from the ice surface, in the locker room, the external environment, the social aspect of things, they can be the toughest things to replace,” Colontino said. “The chemistry that they created as seniors was absolutely huge.”
The future of Robert Morris women’s hockey remains bright. The team will return its top seven scorers, five of its top six defenders and two promising goaltenders. Much like the first few teams established the culture of the program and the 2012-13 team’s CHA tournament title set the stage for things to come, this year’s class established at the same time a new high-water mark and a new goal — the Frozen Four.
The returning players have been to the precipice of that goal. They’ve stared it in the face. Whether they reach it or not now lies in their hands.
“Our seniors did an unbelievable job of showing us what we can do,” said junior forward Amanda Pantaleo. “Next year, we just want to come out and set the bar even higher.”