Deer Lakes hockey makes return to PIHL varsity
Three seasons ago, Deer Lakes was a goal away from playing for a Penguins Cup championship, but it lost a hard-fought semifinal game to Mars in overtime.
Since that moment, the Lancers have been waiting to get back to the varsity level.
Deer Lakes coach Todd Luniewski spent time developing younger players at the junior varsity level, and after a Tier II junior varsity championship last year, the Lancers are ready to rejoin PIHL Class A.
“With a small school, it's about having the appropriate number of kids that have interest to play,” Luniewski said. “The numbers are back up a bit this year. We have 15 skaters, so we're going to go back to varsity. We've never been blessed with large numbers.”
Other hockey teams from the Alle-Kiski Valley faced similar situations in recent years. Burrell returned to the varsity level last season after low numbers forced the suspension of the varsity team. Kiski Area returned in 2015. Now, it's Deer Lakes' turn.
Deer Lakes has three seniors who were freshmen on the last varsity team: Ryan Murdock, Dylan George and Brad Luniewski. Michael Mlinarcik is a senior who didn't play his freshman year, but he registered 13 goals and 16 assists last season.
Murdock led junior varsity in scoring the last two years. He had 45 goals last year and is primed for a strong senior year.
“Ryan is an 18U AA (traveling team) player, and he's one of the best players there, so there will be no transition (to varsity) for him. He'll be just fine,” Luniewski said. “I expect him to be one of the leading scorers.”
The Lancers will roll three lines and two defensive pairs, which was similar to last time they played varsity.
“It'll be tough. We'll probably have to drop a player back to defense every now and then to give them a break,” Luniewski said. “One thing I always know is that we'll be one of the most (conditioned) teams out there. I can guarantee that.”
Burrell is back for its second consecutive season at the varsity level and will play in Division II. Max Rickard, who was an assistant under Cam Zappi last year, is the Bucs coach. Zappi stepped down because of work related reasons.
The Bucs return their top two scorers in Tyler Stewart and Dylan Zelonka. Stewart scored 34 goals last season, and Zelonka had 22. They also return defensemen Bryce Schueler and Nathan Smith and the goalie tandem of Andrew Burkett and Colin Bistarkey. Newcomer Logan Schoepf will be another player who will anchor the defense.
After making the postseason last year, Rickard expects the Bucs to be a strong contender again.
“Having Stewart and Zelonka back will be a big boost,” Rickard said. “I don't think our offense will take a dip at all, which is nice. Bryce and Nathan will be our top pair on defense and Logan is a big body. He's 6-1 and moves well. We were going to put him at forward, but we have a bigger need at defense.”
Burrell has a co-op with several schools, including Valley, Apollo-Ridge and St. Joseph. Meadville, last year's Division II champion, moved to Class A. Moon left Class AA to join Division II this year, putting 10 teams in the class.
Kiski Area is back for its third consecutive varsity season. The Cavaliers made the Class A playoffs the last two years, but lost several key players, including forward Nick Hurley and goalie Alexander Ferraro.
They return leading scorer Austin LaPiana, who scored 30 goals last year, which ranked 5th in Class A, and forward James Ayres. Defenseman Ryan Hastings also returns. Romano Giordano will play defense, and Ryan Welsh will help the forwards.
Freeport has a long-standing tradition of fielding a competitive hockey team.
The Yellowjackets made the playoffs last season under first-year coach Ryan Cooper, but lost top scorer Rob Reichenbaugh. Kyle Hazelett, Cam Speakman and Marcus Hooks are the top returning scorers at forward. Michael Zecca, Brandon Bowser and David Gaspersic return on defense, and Morgan Penn will be back at goalie.
“Our goal as an organization has been to develop the younger players and have a middle school team,” Cooper said. “We weren't able to field a JV squad this year, but we have a middle school team that will be for younger the players, which will keep us going in the future.”
Speakman is the captain for the Yellowjackets this season. Hazelett and Connor Hoffman are alternate captains. Freeport hopes to make another run at the postseason.
“We were able to finish .500 last year and sneak into the playoffs, so I'm hoping that experience will help,” Cooper said. “I'm looking forward to growing as a coach again this year and helping translate the game to the players on the ice.”
Fox Chapel dropped down to Class A after going winless in Class AA last year. The Foxes return Seth and Shane Krhovsky, who were their leading scorers last year.
Plum won the Class AA championship last year and its reward was a bump up to Class AAA. The Mustangs lost 11 players from last year's team, but return all-star goaltender Sergio Benitez.
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.