Robert Morris University hockey coach Derek Schooley is aware of the passage of time. He has a countdown on his phone. He sees it every day.
“I believe 450 days is when I started,” Schooley said. “It looked like it was going to take forever. Now that school has started, now that we have athletes, now that we are on the road, now that we are making commitments. It seems to me that it goes much faster. Before you know it, it will be Christmas time. In no time it will be spring and we will be ready to bring our athletes back to campus.
The days that pass mark the time that separates us from the 2023-2024 college hockey season, just under a year away. That’s when Schooley and women’s coach Logan Bittle will relaunch the Colonials’ hockey programs after they were scrapped in May 2021.
Program coaches, players and alumni fought to re-establish teams, which finally happened in December 2021, but not without a second year out of competition to help raise funds and rebuild programs competitive.
Now, however, with NCAA men’s and women’s hockey games underway for this season, for Schooley and Bittle, the concept of team building for next year is much more concrete. All the theories are now real.
“Watching the games last weekend, you want to play. But we discussed with our teams this week. And we said, ‘Everything we do, there’s a purpose. And that goal is a year from today when we hit the ice. They understood it well. We look forward to Fall 23,” said Bittle.
Yes, both coaches still have a small collection of players. Neither team is starting completely from scratch. Both the men’s and women’s teams picked up three players from the latest iteration of their rosters. Both teams also have three newcomers enrolled in the school who have pledged to wait out the end of the year until hockey returns to RMU Island Sports Center.
The 12 male and female players hold joint training three times a week, adopting what Bittle calls a “single team mentality” between the sexes, as had been the case between the clubs in their efforts to reinstate the programs after their deletion. .
This makes ice time easier and building training drills smoother. Additionally, it allows Schooley and Bittle the occasional free time for recruiting and fundraising duties.
“It was fun. It really pushed the women out of their comfort zone and made them play harder and faster. And the goalkeeper, Maggie Hatch, is an exceptional goalkeeper,” Schooley said. “We only have one rule. No one can hit her in the head. We need her! She’s our only guardian.”
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The remaining days on Schooley’s countdown are ticking fast. Time allocation for him and Bittle is key. There are a lot of balls in the air juggling training with current players, planning, fundraising, recruiting junior league trips, and scouting current NCAA rosters on TV.
For both coaches, the challenge of rebuilding teams seems to be both exciting and daunting. For one, they can hand out a full list of scholarships in a year to land as many recruits as they want.
But there is also a balancing act to this. While Schooley and Bittle are loading up on rookies throughout the year, they want to leave a number of slots open for experienced NCAA skaters who may want to transfer once this season is over.
Schooley said he had “29 locker rooms” available and wanted to reach at least 26 players – 15 forwards, eight defenders and three goalkeepers. The number of transfers he has in mind is 10. But that number is not set in stone.
“You have to be flexible in the plan,” Schooley said. “If I say I want to leave 10 transfer portal places, I find a very good freshman who becomes available late, and I already have 19 players (before transfers became available), why should I let that kid pass?”
Schooley said the team is currently on top form with forwards and needs to start looking at strengthening the blue line. As for goalkeepers, he said there have often been plenty of good goalkeepers available on the transfer portal over the past few years, and he will likely lean in that direction for 2022-23.
Whether attracting rookies or transfers, part of the process is selling prospects on the idea that teams are back and on solid footing. Plus, encouraging them to believe that, of their options, sticking to what amounts to the college version of an expansion team is best for their future.
“You face it head-on. You answer questions before they’re asked,” Bittle said. “We are talking about the fact that the programs have been stopped. We talk about the reasons why, and we talk about the support that is greater than ever. Once people hear this, the answer is yes. It’s exciting that we’re back and we’re going to be competing again for the championships.
This was the case before the teams were scuttled. The women’s team won the CHA and went to the NCAA Tournament. The men won the regular season title for Atlantic Hockey’s reconfigured West Division in the covid 2020-21 year.
Bittle was an assistant coach for this women’s team and a player on Schooley’s men’s team when the programs first launched in 2004-05. Now they are both part of the process of doing it again. And Schooley’s countdown will speed up each day until it hits zero.
RMU men’s hockey coach Derek Schooley and RMU women’s coach Logan Bittle talk about rebuilding the programs for the 2023-24 season.
Listen: Tim Benz talks Robert Morris hockey with coaches Derek Schooley and Logan Bittle
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