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February 20, 2013

Colonials eye strong finish

There was no magic light switch for Robert Morris. No sudden practice fix, no eureka moment in film study, and no harebrained idea during a fitful night of sleep for Andy Toole.

Instead, with his team a surprising 0-2 to start the Northeast Conference schedule, Toole, his staff, and his players came to an agreement. If the players brought the right approach to practice, the coaches would ensure that each session would be worth their while.

"I think we kind of came together a little bit and said if you're willing to bring the right amount of urgency and focus and compete the way you're supposed to," Toole said, "We'll make sure the practices are on point and that there's no wasted time."

As Robert Morris prepped for a weekend road swing through New Jersey, no specific area suddenly improved. Instead, Toole saw an attitude shift.

"We had a great amount of focus and a great amount of urgency, but I wouldn't say there was one or two things," Toole said. "I think we had really good practices leading into that trip, where guys really understood that you can get a lot of valuable work done in practice that will translate into the game. Maybe that's the lesson that we learned that week."

Toole drove the Colonials hard that week, including senior Russell Johnson.

"From what we did in the last week, he was supposed to kill us all," Johnson said with a wry smile. "It was just about us losing two games we should have won, probably both of them, and just about everyone being frustrated about what we did and getting back to the positive side."

The losses were never about talent or confidence, but about execution and mental preparedness. Robert Morris made its bones as a winning program by playing a certain way, and the Colonials had let that mentality slip.

"It was just about getting back to what we do," Johnson said. "It was never about confidence. We just fell off track a little bit and it was just about putting everything back in a straight line."

Getting back on track also meant shunning looking ahead. It's a well-worn cliche that athletes and coaches take things one day at a time, but Toole made it a reality. Twelve games later, Robert Morris is 10-4 and tied for first place in the NEC. Just four games remain, beginning with the last two homes of the season this week against Monmouth and Fairleigh Dickinson, the same two teams RMU needed to beat to regroup back in January.

"It's very, very crucial. Everybody's just one or two games behind," Johnson said. "We're in first place right now, but if we lose one game we could drop to sixth or seventh place just off of one loss and other teams winning. We have to get these four games so we can keep going and keep on the positive side of everything."

The Colonials are still taking things day-by-day, but there's no more tunnel vision. As Johnson suggested, the race to the top in the NEC is very tight. So tight, in fact, that Toole brought it up after Robert Morris lost to Quinnipiac last Thursday. RMU had a chance to move into first place that night but couldn't pull it off down the stretch.

"I wanted to make sure that everyone understood that the world wasn't over," Toole said. "We missed an opportunity, maybe, to improve our lot in life. But when the dust settled on Friday morning, we weren't any worse for the wear, either."

Robert Morris regrouped and won Saturday, and still found itself in first - tied with LIU-Brooklyn, which RMU holds a tiebreaker over, and a half-game ahead of Bryant, with a game against the Bulldogs looming next Thursday. The Colonials control every element of their future. Four wins gives them the top seed in the NEC Tournament, no matter what happens in the rest of the league.

It's an enviable position for Robert Morris. Much like a climber making an ascent, the Colonials put their head down and just churned their way upward for a long stretch. With a final glance up at the peak, RMU is hoping a final push gets them to the top.

"You talk about the day-to-day stuff, and every once in a while you need to see the light at the end of the tunnel and say we're this close," Toole said. "We're not as far as you think."

ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at achiappazzi@yahoo.com.

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