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For Robert Morris’ women’s soccer, road to glory begins with small steps in 2021

In 2015, the Robert Morris women’s soccer team was a first-time postseason participant that finished just one win, and effectively, just one goal, away from its maiden NCAA Tournament voyage. Entering 2021, the RMU women have yet to enjoy a similar taste of success.

A return to conference contender status might not happen overnight for his Colonials, but that’s okay, because second-year head coach Chris Shaw is a patient man. To take on the challenge of guiding a seasoned, yet unproven, side through a new and improved conference, amidst a pandemic that made an unprecedented impact on Division I athletics, he had to be.

“We knew we were only going to have ten games, which is a significantly abbreviated season, but in addition to that, it was like, how many of those ten are we going to get in?” Shaw said, reminiscing about a 1-8-0 trip through the Horizon League in his first year as successor to longtime RMU coach John Kowalski. (The unofficial tenth match was an exhibition defeat of Saint Francis University.) “The travel was tough, wearing a mask six or seven hours on a bus ride, so there’s definitely a more positive outlook and a better energy [around the team] this fall.”

When Shaw came to Robert Morris in December of 2019, leaving UNLV as the winningest coach in the history of its women’s program, he inherited a roster that included 19 returning players of the 22 who dressed for the team’s final campaign as a member of the Northeast Conference. Roster turnover presents a bigger obstacle this season, with the 2021 Colonials returning 11 players who appeared in all nine games last spring, though six who featured regularly in their starting XI are back.

Indeed, the Colonials felt some of those potential growing pains on Thursday night, as they opened their regular season by conceding three times in the first 20 minutes of a 3-1 loss to UMBC in Baltimore. But as they forge ahead on a three-game road swing that takes them to Mount St. Mary’s Saturday (1:00 p.m. EDT on NEC Front Row) and St. Bonaventure next Thursday before their home opener against Valparaiso Sunday, August 29 (1:00 p.m. EDT at RMU’s North Athletic Complex), Shaw is encouraging his players, all things considered, to enjoy this particular ride, results aside.

“It’s about having a positive mentality. It’s been a long, rough year, and I’m just telling them to enjoy the opportunity to, finally, have a proper season, to enjoy it, to work hard, and not take it for granted, whether it’s your freshman year or your grad year,” said Shaw. “These years go by fast, and you only get four of them, so you’ve got to enjoy every minute.”

While the Fayetteville, North Carolina native tries to bring that positivity to the women’s program at RMU, one player who got lots of minutes in the spring, graduate keeper Courtney Worstell, gives him a reason for optimism. After a remarkable three-year run at Washington State that included a Women’s Final Four appearance, Worstell was in goal for 742 of 840 minutes last season for the Colonials, and she backstopped a 4-2 win over Purdue Fort Wayne at the SouthPointe Fieldhouse in Canonsburg Mar. 3, Robert Morris’ first-ever Horizon League victory.

Filling out that area of the depth chart are Orlando-born redshirt junior Isabella (“Bella”) Bohlen, who entered the program via the transfer portal, and rookie Morgan Brustman. Filling the boots of recently graduated Sydney Bruckner is quite another matter, but the new keepers got their fall season off on the right foot in preseason camp.

“All three are very hard workers, and they’re making for some tough decisions for the coaching staff for sure,” Shaw said. “Isabella has come in really sharp, coming over from the University of Hartford, and definitely is pushing for a starting spot. We definitely think she’ll help us do well defensively.”

Bohlen started the first half Thursday, and Worstell the second, each finishing with one save.

Meanwhile, expect the Colonials to funnel their offense through redshirt junior midfielder Kaoru Hayashi, perhaps the returnee who excites Shaw most of all. A native of Ama, Japan and erstwhile member of that country’s youth national team, Hayashi played the third-most minutes (782) of any Colonial last spring and led the team with 11 shots on target, including the one that went in Mar. 24 against Detroit Mercy for her first-ever NCAA goal.

“She’s a bit deeper in the midfield, so she doesn’t necessarily get on the scoresheet that much. But she makes the team click,” Shaw said of Hayashi, who is coming off Second Team All-Horizon League honors.

Not only are forwards Haleigh Finale, a sophomore from South Park High School, and Emily Rocco, a rookie from Upper St. Clair, the ones who might reap the most benefits of Hayashi’s play in the middle of the pitch, but they also lead an intriguing crop of WPIAL talent–seven players in all–on the 2021 team.

Finale spoiled Isy Davy’s clean sheet on Thursday by netting her first collegiate goal in the 76th minute, with an assist from another local product and one of Shaw’s substitutes, senior defender and former West Allegheny standout Courtney Hurey.

Sure enough, the goal was a short-range blast that came off a Hayashi free kick.

“Anytime you can entice the local players to stay local, it helps with community support, getting more people at games, that sort of thing. When I got here, we definitely wanted to recruit more local players,” said Shaw. “Emily was our first 2021 commit when I got here. Great attitude, good athlete, hard-working. Haleigh came into this season looking even fitter and sharper, and we’re excited about her.”

Chartiers Valley alumna and fellow senior Allie Ball, another returning starter, will help Hurey hold down the back line in 2021. Ball began her RMU career with a selection to the All-NEC Rookie Team in 2018 and led the team in minutes as both a sophomore (1,682) and junior (835). After starring at neighboring Moon Area High School, Kristi Kania has brought additional defensive experience to RMU’s senior class since transferring from Miami-Ohio.

“Kristi started quite a few games last year for us. She’s done a good job this year as well, and we’re looking for her to continue,” Shaw said.

While that trio looks to bring stability to their own half, Shaw adds that new assistant coach Brandon Regan, who spent the past six years in the same position with the Robert Morris men’s program, has helped stabilize him after his long journey from the West Coast. Together, the identity they are trying to form for the women’s team in 2021 could probably be summarized with one word: fundamentals.

“We’re going to build out of the back and play through the midfield. We want to be an entertaining team to watch, but ultimately, what I want people to recognize Robert Morris for is being a team that’s going to play quality, attractive soccer, and not just be a bump-it-and-run kind of team,” said Shaw. “We want players that are comfortable on the ball, technically and tactically sound. I’ll value that over athletes that can simply lob the ball forward and run.

“We started to put that framework down in the spring, and I don’t think the results were indicative of the quality of soccer we played, so hopefully that changes this fall.”

It’s a long way from Vegas to Moon. It’s a long way back to the excellence of that historic 2015 season as well.

It won’t stop Shaw from envisioning bigger and better things on the Horizon.

“It’s quite a bit more competitive than the NEC. Ultimately, we’ve got to attract quality players and coach them up to try and get results,” he said. “Once you get into the conference tournament, it’s anyone’s game, and our goal is to try to compete for a Horizon championship at some point within the next couple years.

“I think some teams will overlook us–and I hope they do. We’ve got some good players coming in, as well, who have committed for ’22, and we think the program is moving in the right direction. We want to win more games than we did last year, then, obviously, win more games than we did the year before.

“It’s a process, but we’ve just got to keep our eye on the end result and focus on getting there.”

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