Robert Morris (15-2-5, 8-1-1 in College Hockey America) vs. Mercyhurst (8-15-1, 4-6 in CHA)
7:05 p.m. Friday and 2:05 p.m. Saturday, Mercyhurst Ice Center, Erie, Pa.
NEVILLE TWP, Pa. — In the 2015-16 season, the Mercyhurst women’s hockey team beat the Robert Morris women four times in five tries. To make matters worse, the Lakers ended the Colonials’ season with the last of those victories when the teams met in the College Hockey America semifinals.
More often than not, that’s the way things have gone when other teams go up against the Lakers, who have established hegemony as the conference’s powerhouse through 14 consecutive regular season league titles. Mercyhurst is the only team to ever win a CHA regular-season title.
There have been some chinks in the armor along the way, including in 2012, when RMU bested Mercyhurst in the CHA tournament, but for the most part, it’s been the big sister and everyone else.
But that could be starting to change. Even considering the 0-4-1 drubbing the Colonials took a year ago, they are a competitive 10-12-2 against the Lakers in the last six seasons, and that mark includes a pair of hard-fought 2-1 victories at 84 Lumber Arena in October.
In fact, since the Lakers eliminated the Colonials last spring, the teams’ fates have gone in opposite directions. The Lakers were swamped, 6-0, by Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament and haven’t been able to find their typical championship form this season. At 8-15-1 overall and 4-6 in conference play, suffice to say, it will be a rare down year for head coach Michael Sisti’s squad.
The Colonials, on then other hand, appear to be on the rise, with a red-hot 15-2-5 record, a No. 7 national ranking and a three-point conference lead heading into the weekend.
That should set up a game that both teams will want badly, from the desperation of the Lakers to resurrect a season and exact a slice of revenge for the two losses at Robert Morris, to the Colonials’ desire to put a cap on the changing of the guard in CHA. If the previous games in the series are any guide, expect it to be physical.
“It was a bloodbath out there,” defender Kirsten Welsh said after the first series this season. “It’s never a light and easy game with them. It’s aways grinding and bumping, Mercyhurst is always like that. We’re bitter rivals, as you can tell.”
“You can see it in their eyes,” added senior defender Mikaela Lowater. “Everyone wanted to beat everyone. Everybody wants to win. I think it’s good because this game is something special. It think this is something special for us and for Mercyhurst, too.”
The Lakers, thanks to their years of success, have a feeling that every team in the conference would love to be the ones to knock them from the top of the table.
“With us winning so many league championships, I think every team in the league, I would imagine, wants to beat us,” Sisti said. “We’ve won every regular-season championship, so the pressure and responsibility of our players is to know we’re going to get the best out of every team, every night. That’s a tall order, but that’s kind of what they sign up for when they come to our program.”
While Sisti downplayed the importance of the rivalry of the teams separated by just a two-hour drive on Interstate 79, it’s clear that the Lakers in the dressing room have similar feelings to the Colonials.
“With those guys, emotions run hot — a lot,” senior captain Paige Horton said. “Each team wants to win, obviously. Emotions sometimes get the best of us, we seem like we’re a little more physical, but it’s a fun game to play when it’s like that. … Since I’ve been at Mercyhurst, Robert Morris has always been that team where it’s a rivalry. I’d say we have a bit of a rivalry.”
Although the proximity between the schools doesn’t matter as much in a sport where visiting fans rarely travel, the fact that both schools recruit from the same area means that many players on each team have been playing against each other since grade school. That, and the four-times-per-year schedule of the CHA keep emotions fresh at the surface from game to game.
“We’ve got a small league with six team and it gets personal,” RMU head coach Paul Colontino said. “We don’t have 10 or 12 teams where sometimes it’s easier to move on to the next one. We’re seeing each other a lot, sometimes things build up and that’s just the way it is. It’s what we play for. It’s exciting. It’s fun. The players get amped up and the games mean more.”
While Sisti was hesitant to refer to the rivalry as such, he did unquestionably say it’s a good thing for the sport of women’s hockey in Pennsylvania that the team hunting the Lakers is another Keystone State squad.
“I think it’s awesome for the state and youth hockey,” he said. “I think it’s good for the game and it’s really exciting.”
It was only a matter of time before someone significantly challenged Mercyhurst’s dominance in the CHA, and the Colonials are hoping that it’s them.
“We wanted come out strong to show them that we could take them,” goaltender Lauren Bailey said of the October series between the teams.”
“I think that’s to be expected,” responded Horton. “That just means we have to push harder to continue to be on top.”