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Hockey

Sewickly Academy hockey looks to take next step

| Monday, Oct. 10, 2016, 1:30 p.m.
West Allegheny's Sean Weber reaches for the puck between Sewickley Academy's Don Gex (97) and Michael Hertzberg during their game Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, at RMU Island Sports Center.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
West Allegheny's Sean Weber reaches for the puck between Sewickley Academy's Don Gex (97) and Michael Hertzberg during their game Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, at RMU Island Sports Center.

Sewickley Academy was just happy to be back in the PIHL last year.

Now, the Panthers want to start taking some steps toward reaching the Penguins Cup Class A playoffs.

Sewickley Academy, which took off the 2011-12 season and spent the next three seasons in the Independent School Hockey League, returned to the PIHL last fall. While the Panthers finished 3-18-1, they hope they laid the groundwork for a strong push this season.

“It was a big adjustment last year coming back into the league. It was a really big transition. I thought that we showed a lot of promise last year but never really clicked and got quite where we wanted to be,” Sewickley Academy senior defenseman Joey Straka said. “We didn't expect that we would do great. Our hope would be that we would hold our own and not be an outlier. We wanted to establish ourselves again, and I think we definitely did that. What we want to do now is kind of change our image into being one of the teams that people don't want to play against.”

Chris Chiusano took over as coach this season. He understands the growing process involved with the young Panthers. He expects the squad's progress to continue.

“The experience they had last year kind of gave them an idea of the level of competition in the PIHL. I think, to some degree, it gave them a little bit of confidence even though their record wasn't something the guys were happy about,” he said. “Quite a bit of these guys play amateur hockey, too. It's just a matter of getting some more confidence and chemistry in this group. Hopefully, within the next month to month-and-a-half, we can turn things around quickly and give some teams some fits they didn't anticipate.

“In our first meeting in June with the players, we stressed that it takes a lot of hard work, perseverance, dedication and teamwork to accomplish the goals they want. One goal is to make the playoffs and shoot for a .500-or-better season. It's not going to be easy, but I think it's capable of being attained.”

The Panthers opened the season without a handful of players, including Straka, who can't join the team until their fall sports seasons are complete.

“We're missing those guys. They'll be a nice addition once we get them back in the lineup,” Chiusano said.

Sewickley Academy returns two PIHL All-Stars in junior forward Michael Hertzberg and junior goaltender Cole Luther. Hertzberg led the team with 12 goals and 19 points last year. The Panthers struggled to generate offense a year ago as they scored a PIHL-low 49 goals.

“Our team last year was really young. We had a lot of freshmen. While they are all skilled, they got knocked about a bit because of their size. It seems like all those young guys who I was fearing for have gotten a little bigger and are going to be very positive contributors,” Straka said.

“For a lot of the older guys, the biggest difference for us is the whole chemistry aspect and getting the feel for how hockey is played in this league. Everybody is still learning. We have to be able to adapt and keep on improving.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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