Just over two months ago, the Robert Morris Colonials women's hockey team was riding a wave of strong performances and positive energy. Although the Colonials would eventually fall in the NCAA quarterfinals to Northeastern, the team still had much to celebrate, including its first College Hockey America title since 2017.
Now, those same players are left shocked by the university's May 26th announcement that it is cutting both of its Division I hockey programs, effective immediately, in what they call "part of a series of strategic initiatives intended to position the university to be amongst the most agile and professionally focused schools in the nation."
Wednesday's news was shocking for a number of reasons. Both Robert Morris teams – men's and women's – have regularly provided consistent, high-level play in their respective conferences. In addition to their 2021 and 2017 CHA tournament championships and NCAA tournament appearances, the Colonials have had strong regular season finishes in the CHA conference each of the last three seasons.
But the university cutting the programs in and of itself wasn't the only upsetting news. It was also communicated poorly and suddenly, in a way that left those associated with the Colonials' hockey program feeling stunned and discarded.
On Wednesday evening, I spoke to RMU forward Michaela Boyle via telephone. Her emotions were palpable – from shock to sadness to anger and everything in between.
Around 12:45 PM on Wednesday, Robert Morris' women's hockey players received notification of a meeting scheduled for one hour later. No subject was disclosed, so players didn't know what to expect. The news was hastily delivered to players, who then had no time to absorb the reality of what had happened before the university publicly announced the decision on social media just minutes later.
"I don't think any of us honestly thought when we got that email that that was what the meeting was going to be about," Boyle said.
"We're on the call, and our president started speaking about how they decided to cut the men's and women's hockey programs," she added. "He was trying to fill the space between him speaking and the athletic director by saying that it was a financial decision, or something along those lines. I honestly was in so much shock, I don't even really feel like I could accurately tell you what they said their reasoning was."
"It was really poorly handled," Boyle added. "They gave us all this information, and then they were like, 'okay, we're going to go talk to the athletic staff now.' They just blasted us with this information and then basically, bye, okay. Before I could even get off the phone with my dad telling him what happened, my phone was blowing up, everything was all over Twitter."
Forward Lexi Templeman echoed similar thoughts about the shock of the announcement.
"I was, and still am, at a loss for words," said forward Lexi Templeman. "It came as such a shock to us all. It's completely devastating."
Over the course of four years at Robert Morris, Templeman accrued 83 points. Just a few days ago, she was looking forward to returning to the university, but now that's all up in the air.
"I've really loved RMU," she said. "It's become my second home and I'm devastated by this news. I have delayed my graduation, as I was planning on completing my undergraduate and graduate degree together in May 2022."
Boyle is already too familiar with the trials and tribulations of transferring to a new school. After playing her freshman season at Clarkson, she transferred to Robert Morris and was a redshirt junior this past season. Just as she settled into her place with the Colonials, she's now left searching for another new team.
"Having transferred once already, I'm really looking to find a home, find a place that is going to have that lasting impact on my life," Boyle said. "I felt like I had that, and to have that ripped away from me... it's sad. It's sad, because there's nothing I can do to change it."
"It gave me so much, an opportunity to be the player that I knew I could be, a player that everyone wanted to be," she added. "I'm eternally grateful to my coaches for that opportunity. Not only did it help me become the player that I wanted to be, but it's really shaped me into the person I am today. The brief two years that I was there, I was proud to be a Colonial. Today, I'm proud to be a women's hockey Colonial, but I'm not proud to be associated with Robert Morris University. That's hard, because that's not something I had ever thought I'd feel."
Wednesday's announcement leaves the players in a tough spot.
"With the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility, people want to take advantage of that, which decreases the available spots on rosters," Boyle said. "We're all hoping and wishing that something's going to work out for each and every one of us to be able to continue our careers somewhere. But at the end of the day, you can't really bank on the transfer portal like we used to."
Boyle added that going through all the struggles of the past year, between COVID-19 and scraping together a season amidst all of that, makes it even harder to accept.
"This year's been crazy," she said. "We went through this whole year to play, to achieve what we did through these circumstances. Nobody really thought that was possible, but the players, we always kind of knew that we had it in us. We had to show up for what we were capable of."
"Everyone showed up on a daily basis and wanted to be there," she added. "They wanted to be a part of the program. We're advertised as [...] Pittsburgh's college hockey team, that's how they promoted us. Well, not only did you take away our ability to play, but you took away Pittsburgh's college hockey team, too."
It's far too early to say what's next for the players, who now have to make tough decisions about their future. According to the university's release about the cuts, it "will honor all scholarships currently being received by the student-athletes whose sports are being discontinued and will assist those who wish to transfer. Under NCAA rules, student-athletes who transfer from schools that have eliminated their sport do not have to sit out a season at their new school."
Some, like Templeman, haven't determined what they're going to do.
"I honestly don't know," she said. "I have entered the transfer portal. I'm not sure if I will transfer or finish out my education at RMU."
Others, like Boyle, are more than ready to cut their ties with the university, who she says hasn't even considered how the student-athletes will be impacted by the cuts.
"You leave home at 17, 18 years old, travel who knows how far to play hockey. Obviously, you're there to get an education, but the reason you're there is because of hockey," Boyle said. "It would be worse, going back and showing my face on campus, constantly being reminded of what I've had versus what I have now."
"I don't want it [my diploma] to say Robert Morris University if I'm not able to play hockey there. That's the last thing I want," she added. "I think so many people [got] let down by the school, the administrators, the athletic department. They always tell us that they want to give us the best student athlete experience they could give us... as much as they call this a strategic decision, I think it's gonna bite them in the ass, and I'm not afraid to say that."
Note: Michaela wished to clarify that she meant to say that if she isn't able to play hockey at Robert Morris, she wouldn't want her diploma to say RMU.
"I don't think they've thought about how it is really overall going to affect us," Boyle said.
Cutting the team means that the CHA will now only have five teams; the NCAA requires each conference to have a minimum of six teams in order to be eligible for a tournament auto-bid, but the conference will have a two-year window in which to get back to that minimum.
Many other current and former players reacted to the news on social media. All appeared shocked and devastated by the news, including Emilie Harley, Leah Marino, Kirsten Welsh, and Amber Rennie.
Both Boyle and Templeman asked that fans and supporters consider signing the Change.org petition asking Robert Morris to reverse their decision and reinstate both the men's and women's Division I hockey programs.
(Photo: RMU Women's Hockey/Twitter)