MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Robert Morris defender Kristi Kania is hungry to end her collegiate career on a winning note. So hungry, in fact, that she spent much of her off-season in a kitchen.
Tasting victory on the pitch has not come as easily for Kania, who interned at the GetGo corporate office for a second consecutive summer, nor her RMU teammates.
A promising 5-0-3 start by the 2022 Colonials gave way to a disappointing finish that saw their season end on a five-game losing streak and with seven defeats in their last ten matches.
As the Colonials were left trying to figure out how to qualify for the postseason for just the second time in the 30-year history of the women’s program, Kania taste-tested experimental GetGo menu items for potential public consumption while working toward her Master’s degree in Business Analytics.
The late-season backslide was revealing for a Robert Morris side that, nevertheless, came closer to finishing with a winning overall record (7-7-4) than it has at any point since 2011, the only time the Colonials accomplished that feat.
“At least playing and competing in one of the first rounds of Horizon League playoffs would be super cool, and a nice note to end on,” said Kania, one of RMU’s 2023 captains, after a Wednesday morning training session at the North Athletic Complex. “I know that this program is progressing, and it would be nice to walk away knowing that, in my last year, we got us to that next point.”
Robert Morris begins its 32nd all-time season of women’s soccer Thursday afternoon with a non-conference test at VMI, touching off a season-opening road trip that later takes it to Hampton (Friday), Akron (Aug. 24) and longtime rival Saint Francis (Aug. 27).
The 5’6″ Kania, who has played 43 career matches and logged 3,534 minutes for her hometown school, will try to fortify the Colonials’ back line alongside fellow WPIAL product Emily Rocco (5’8″), an Upper St. Clair native who returns for her junior season after featuring 11 times last fall.
Behind them is a more voluminous, if not also improved, goalkeeping corps augmented by another graduate student, Charlotte transfer Brenna Murray, and 5’5″ rookie Deetya Satyal, believed to be the first Division I women’s player in history to hail from Nepal. Morgan Brustman, a 5’8″ junior from Manchester, New Jersey returns after appearing in four games as a backup in 2022.
“It’s by far the most talented group of players in my tenure here,” fourth-year head coach Chris Shaw said of his 2023 squad. “I think our on-field chemistry is really good, and our off-field chemistry has been great as well. All the pieces are in place to have a successful year.”
The progress the Colonials have made under Shaw, although incremental at times, is evident. They won just one match in the truncated 2020 season, having joined the Horizon League prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but followed that up with six wins in 2021 before last year’s high-water mark.
In preparation for the 2023 campaign, he recruited a seven-player rookie class, while also adding five through the transfer portal to a 31-player roster that returns a number of notable veterans.
One key ingredient to ending the program’s postseason drought, which stretches back to 2015, will be the play of Japanese midfielder Kaoru “Ka” Hayashi, who is practicing with the team again after missing last season with a right ACL injury. Hayashi, a graduate student and co-captain, has a pair of All-Horizon League Second Team selections to her credit, as well as United Soccer Coaches All-Region Team honors in 2021.
“We want to keep the ball and be a possession-oriented team. We want to build out of the back, play through the midfield, and we want to be an attractive team to watch,” Shaw said.
Their most entertaining player on the attack has been senior forward and former South Park standout Haleigh Finale, coming off a team-leading five goals in 2022, plus two assists. Another of the 13 WPIAL players on RMU’s 2023 roster, second-year striker and Freedom Area alumna Renae Mohrbacher, contributed four helpers last fall, sharing the team lead.
Meanwhile, sophomores Elisa Corvalan and Penn-Trafford’s Malia Kearns, each of whom registered seven points last season, have proven capable of chipping in offensively from the midfield. Kearns made the Horizon League’s All-Rookie Team in 2022, and the Vegas-raised Corvalan trained with the under-20 Chilean National Team earlier this year.
“I’ve been most impressed by our team chemistry and work ethic. Every year, since I’ve been here, it’s gotten better and better,” said Finale, who played for Century United of the developmental Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) prior to preseason camp. “The freshmen are coming in hungry for playing time, so that just pushes the older girls a bit more.
“You want every season to be better than the last, and I think we’re in a good position for that.”
Within its conference schedule, RMU ranked fifth in shots (127) but next to last in goals scored (7). Of its 31 total goals against last fall, 26 came versus Horizon opponents.
“We need to have more grit all over the field, offensively and defensively. When we’re right in front of the goal, we need to be on the ball, and then, defensively, doing everything we can,” Kania said. “My high school coach always used to say, defend for your lives, so that’s what I try to do when I’m back there.”
“The past few years, we’ve conceded too much,” said Shaw. “We’ve got to be more determined and more resilient in defending. Every game in the Horizon League is a grind and a nail-biter, and it’s just about being a little bit mentally tougher.”
While keeping their own heads in the game, the Colonials will have to turn several others in order to make their Horizon League tournament debut in 2023. They’ve been picked to repeat last year’s tenth-place finish in the conference’s annual preseason coaches’ poll.
“If you put in the work over the summer, it’ll be just a little bit easier when you come back the fall,” Finale said. “That’s what it takes to get this team to where it wants to be. Everyone needs to put in the work in the off-season.”
“Summer is definitely hard because you have to get in the mindset of training on your own. You don’t have all the other girls around to motivate you,” said Kania. “But it seems like, from day one, everyone went out and did what they could in the summer, and we were ready to go. I’m excited to see what this team can do this year.”