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Franklin Regional hockey embracing challenge of moving up to Class AA

| Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, 10:15 p.m.

With Franklin Regional winning back-to-back Class A Penguins Cup titles the last two seasons, coach Brian Kurtz knew a change in classification was on the horizon.

The PIHL realigns teams every couple of years based on performance, and with the success Franklin Regional has had, it was chosen to move up to Class AA.

Kurtz looks at the change as a challenge for the Panthers, and with many players returning from last year's championship team, they want to show they can compete on a higher level.

“I think us moving up actually gives us that little spark of motivation,” Kurtz said. “Not that we weren't motivated, but this gives us that extra motivation to work hard. We had a good offseason. The guys worked hard and put in good workouts. We're looking to try to be in the playoffs, and if we can get there, anything can happen.”

Franklin Regional is coming off one of the most dominant Class A seasons in recent PIHL history. The Panthers went 17-1, outscored opponents 126-17 and had 10 shutouts in the regular season.

They return their second- and third-leading scorers, Oldrich Virag and Nick Carretta; two top defensemen, Tommy Rafferty and Ethan Yohe; and goalie Daniel Soltesz. Virag notched 20 goals and 35 assists last season, and Carretta had 17 goals and 28 assists. Soltesz had all 10 of Franklin Regional's shutouts, led the PIHL in save percentage and his 17 goals allowed were the fewest in a season since 2010.

The Panthers lost top scorer Jamie Mauro, who had 34 goals last year, and defensemen Joe Grieco and Justin Gismondi, last year's captain, to graduation. Mauro is playing for Slippery Rock's ACHA team.

Without Mauro, the Panthers will look toward a younger player to play on the top line with Carretta and Virag. Carretta has had a knack for coming up large in big games. He scored twice in the third period of Franklin Regional's first Penguins Cup title game two years ago against South Fayette and had two goals in the title-clinching win over Thomas Jefferson last year. Virag also had a pair of goals in the Thomas Jefferson win.

“Their work ethic is good, and they play with a lot of competitiveness,” Kurtz said of Virag and Carretta. “This year, they are looking to take a leadership role.

“We have some young guys coming up. Missing Jamie Mauro is going to be a huge loss for us. We're going to have to make up a lot of points without him. Hopefully some of these young guys or some of my young returning varsity players can fill at least half of that void.”

Some of the returning varsity players include Kevin Cakanac and Justin Carter. Cakanac had nine points in 17 games last year, and Carter played in 15 games. Trent Lunden and Nick Zeto were junior varsity players last year, and Kurtz said they could bring some skill to the lineup.

“We're looking for (Cakanac) do some big things for us this year,” Kurtz said. “Carter is a nice player. He was a callup from JV last year, and I'm looking for him to make that next leap and have an opportunity to do some good things. We have some younger players with some skill coming up, and maybe some leadership from Carretta and Virag can bring them along.”

Franklin Regional participated in the St. Margaret preseason tournament and finished 2-1 with wins over Canon-McMillan and Armstrong and a loss to Latrobe.

The Panthers will renew acquaintances with sever fellow Westmoreland County schools as Latrobe, Hempfield and Penn-Trafford are in the South/East Conference with them. Baldwin, Shaler and Upper St. Clair are also in Franklin Regional's conference.

The Panthers open the season by hosting Hampton on Oct. 2.

“We know a little about some of the (Class AA) schools,” Kurtz said. “We know it's going to be a bigger challenge, but I think we have a nice team and that we'll be competitive.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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