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Experience a plus for Quaker Valley, Sewickley Academy hockey teams

| Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Experience is the key word for the Quaker Valley and Sewickley Academy hockey teams as they open the PIHL season Monday.

The Quakers began last season with an inexperienced defense, and the Panthers still were trying to establish themselves in their second year back in the PIHL.

Both squads reached the Penguins Cup playoffs and earned wins. Now, they hope to continue their progression this season.

Quaker Valley had an almost entirely new blue line and rotated freshmen goaltenders Philip Gagne and Colin Rice. The Quakers welcome back almost every defenseman, and Gagne and Rice, now sophomores, have a valuable year of experience playing against varsity competition.

“We're hopeful. They played valiantly for us as freshmen. We're going to need them to be a step better for us because Double-A didn't get any easier. It got much harder with the teams that came in,” Quaker Valley coach Kevin Quinn said. “Defensively, Owen Harkins played a lot of minutes for us last year, but he graduated. We have Nico Simakas as an addition back there, and Ben Kuzma will start the season on defense for us. I think we've got pretty good depth for the first time. It's an extremely difficult task ahead with the way Double-A is, though. We'll need every single player to compete.”

The squad welcomes experience up front, too. It features seven seniors in Ryan Quinn, Beau Tomczak, Rico Fernandez, Jake Giotto, Alex Ritz, Kuzma and Simakas.

“We have seven seniors, and that's abnormally high for us,” Kevin Quinn said. “It's a good thing.”

Last year, Tomczak led the team in scoring with 33 points and 18 goals in the regular season. Ryan Quinn (21 points) was second and Fernandez (15) was fourth.

“They've been playing together as a line pretty much since middle school hockey,” Kevin Quinn said. “They have great chemistry. We're really excited about our depth up front, too.”

The Quakers beat Hampton in the first round of the Penguins Cup Class AA playoffs, but fell to Latrobe, 6-3, in the semifinals.

Sewickley Academy opened the Penguins Cup Class A tournament with a 4-1 upset win over Bishop McCort. It was the program's first Penguins Cup victory since 2007. The program left the PIHL after the 2011 campaign, but returned in 2015.

“That game was a huge, huge confidence booster for the guys on the team,” Sewickley Academy coach Chris Chiusano said. “I think they saw that as confirmation that hard work and sticking to the program ends up in good results, if you believe. The guys were really excited about this coming season and understand the benefits of hard work. I think that's absolutely a positive thing for this organization and team.”

The Panthers, who lost to Indiana, 6-2, in the playoffs, return a large corps of players, led by senior forward Michael Hertzberg, who paced the team in scoring, and goaltender Cole Luther.

“I am excited about this season. We lost four seniors to graduation, but we have the majority of the team returning, which is a good thing,” Chiusano said.

Juniors Matthew Hajdukiewicz, Andrew Beck, Jack Duggan, Jackson Paul, Henry Meakem and Tommy Gordon bring back experience. Junior forward Logan Fullerton is new to the team.

“I am really optimistic about what we can accomplish this year,” Chiusano said. “Some teams moved up and some moved down into Class A. That'll make things interesting from the standpoint of travel. We'll be traveling more this year and seeing some opponents we're not accustomed to seeing.”

Sewickley Academy finished 10-10 last year. The Panthers hope to improve on that this season.

“Our goals are set a little higher this season. I think the guys have really bought in and see we are capable of accomplishing some pretty good things,” Chiusano said. “It'll take hard work and a lot of teamwork to get where we want to be this season. Our success last year really generated a lot of interest in the program. That was definitely one of the good outcomes from last year. Hopefully, we are able to capitalize on it this year.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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