Mars hockey team hoping for return to Penguin Cup

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Mars hockey team is hoping seven is its lucky number this season.

The Planets advanced to their sixth consecutive PIHL Penguins Cup Class A championship last season. Even though it ended with a loss to rival Quaker Valley, like the season before, Mars remains optimistic because it returns plenty of on-ice experience.

“It is real nice. We lost some important pieces, but we didn't lose a lot of players,” Mars coach Steve Meyers said. “Most the guys who came up from our junior varsity team practiced with us last year. So, they knew what they were going into. It's nice for them to know what they can expect, and we can just go right into drills, rather than having to do a lot of teaching.”

The Planets lost Max Master and Ed Schwadron, who each scored 14 goals during the regular season, to graduation. However, they return six of their top 10 scorers. As a result, Meyers made sure Mars had a tough preseason schedule against Class AA and Class AAA teams.

“I did that because I knew had a lot of players coming back, so I wanted to ramp up the preseason schedule,” Meyers said.

Thomas Jefferson surprised the Planets, 6-2, to open PIHL Class A action. However, Mars responded with a key 4-1 road win over Westmont Hilltop, a 10-2 triumph over South Fayette and a 6-5 victory against Deer Lakes.

“We just weren't ready to play,” Meyers said about the Thomas Jefferson game. “Overall, I think playing some tough competition helped us. Pretty much every team we've played, we have outshot them. I am pretty happy with where we are now. ... Things are coming together nicely, I think.”

The Planets hope to regain the Penguins Cup. After winning three in a row (2009-11), including a pair of state championships (2010-11), they've been stopped at Consol Energy Center by Quaker Valley in the past two years.

“I am sure that's on their minds. As a team, we don't worry about it. We try not to think too much about that,” Meyers said. “We accept our path, but this team is trying to build its own identity. We haven't won anything in three years, not even a section title.”

Senior Craig Mazzotta, who led Mars with 22 goals and 19 assists in the 2012-13 regular season, is the team's last remaining player to experience a Penguins Cup championship.

“I was a call-up and I got to experience the Penguins Cup and state championships. Right now, I am the only kid on team that has been able to experience that,” he said. “We have a lot of returning players, and they know what it's like to be in the Penguins Cup championship, but they don't know what it's like to win. During practices and games, I try to do my best so the younger guys can look up to me and, hopefully, we can break through.”

Nick Makozy, Noah Master, Beau Heakins, Trevor Tisdale and Owen Vasbinder are some of the top returning forwards. Knoch transfer Paul Maust will help up front, as well. Ian Houk-Graves, Mike McCann, Ian Newman and Jason Schwartz are veteran defensemen. Alex Stepke and freshman Tyler Spreng are competing for time in goal.

“We have had the same system for a lot of years. These guys know it very well. Guys like Craig have been doing it for four years, so we are a structured and disciplined team,” Meyers said. “We are a big team and a physical team. Our guys can run our system flawlessly when they want to. It's a matter of consistency. We might struggle to score goals because we don't have that pure goal scorer like we have had in the past. But, if we run things right, I think we'll be a hard team to beat.”

Dressing a full lineup remains a challenge. Many of the Planets also play travel hockey and must miss some games with the high school team.

“I don't know if there is another team in Single-A that will have as many absences. It can be rough getting some of those guys even 10 games,” Meyers said. “We're trying to get used to them being there and then not being there. We're a work in progress right now.”

Class A has 10 PIHL teams, but Mars isn't taking any of them lightly.

“Many are high quality. There are not too many matchups that will be duds. It's a quality, quality league,” Meyers said. “We already lost to TJ; they have some talent. Quaker Valley, Freeport. Westmont, Serra Catholic, Deer Lakes — really, there's nobody that's weak.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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