Derek Schooley knows exactly what Tom Petty meant when he sang “the waiting is the hardest part.” The Robert Morris head coach has been counting the days until the first-year Division I program finally takes to the rink.
“Our players are excited about being here. The community’s excited, the campus is excited about us being a program,” said Schooley, who has been working behind the scenes for the better part of 12 months getting the Colonials ready for College Hockey America play. “I’ve been like a general manager for so long, ordering equipment and recruiting players. Now we just want to get on the ice and start practicing.”
While Robert Morris is a newcomer on the CHA scene, Schooley and his staff — assistants Nate Handrahan and Marc Fakler — are no strangers to the league. Schooley spent five seasons on Frank Serratore’s staff at Air Force, serving four years as an assistant before being promoted to associate head coach in 2002-03.
Handrahan played four seasons at Niagara University, then spent the past three years as a Purple Eagle assistant under coach Dave Burkholder. And Fakler served on Bill Wilkinson’s Wayne State staff for the past two seasons. Their collective experience with the league could be the biggest assets the team has.
“I wanted to surround myself with winners,” Schooley stated. “Both these gentlemen — Nate as a player and a coach, Marc as a coach — have been to the NCAA tournament. I’ve been to the NCAA tournament as a player. To get our players to the level we want to be at, you’ve got to have the direction to show them how to get there.”
Those players will likely need a lot of nurturing. The RMU roster features 24 freshmen, and only four skaters (Doug Conley, Joe Tuset, Kurt Wright and Bryan Mills) with previous NCAA experience. Mills, a junior transfer from Niagara, is ineligible for game action.
“He won’t play, he’s just going to practice this year. But any time you can add a guy with 45 Division I games of experience, and guys who have played in the NCAA tournament, you’ve got to jump at that,” said Schooley. “[Findlay transfer] Kurt Wright brings a veteran leadership. He’s 23 years old, has been around for a long time. He works hard and will be a good role model.
“Doug Conley was at Niagara for a year. He’s also a player that we expect to kind of show the younger guys the way as we start playing Division I hockey and start playing CHA teams.”
The Colonials’ lineup will feature more of a local flavor than most teams, with six players coming from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas. Jace Buzek, Joe Federoff and Eric Trax formerly laced up their skates at the Island Sports Center — Robert Morris’ home rink — as members of the NAHL’s Pittsburgh Forge.
“The guys that we have from Pittsburgh are all good, quality hockey players,” Schooley said. “Most of them won a national Junior A championship here with the Forge. So we’re bringing more winners into our program.”
Federoff was among the leading scorers during the 2003-04 NAHL season, recording 54 points (20-34) in 55 games with Youngstown and Toledo. Trax faced off against his current teammate while manning the Lone Star Cavalry’s blueline last year.
Buzek, along with Conley and David Boguslawski, played for 2004 USHL champion Tri-City Storm. That trio combined for 37 goals and 81 points on the junior circuit.
“To be able to bring three quality players in from the USHL, which is arguably the top developmental league in the United States, we’re excited to be able to do that,” Schooley said. “Those are three guys that we’re expecting to do a lot for our program.”
Others that figure to fill prominent roles up front are Logan Bittle, who finished second in NAHL scoring last season with 71 points (34-37) in 53 games with the Soo Indians, and Rick Varone, who posted 51 points (27-24) in 41 games with the OPJHL’s Newmarket Hurricanes.
Andrew Bonello, a strong puck-handling defender, will be counted on to help Trax in the back. Christian Boucher, a 2004 CJHL All-Star, will push Tuset for playing time between the Robert Morris pipes.
Schooley has no delusions about his relatively inexperienced squad, despite a strong recruiting class. Any first-year program figures to see its share of bumps and bruises, and the rookie coach is looking at this inaugural season as a learning experience for all involved.
“I think we need to come with the mindset that every day we’re going to improve. If we get better every day, things will go from there. Our team motto this year is ‘success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out,’” Schooley stated. “Our players have to give 100 percent every night. If we do that, we’re going to compete. If we don’t, it could be a long year.”