Long-struggling Deer Lakes hockey gains notice
TribLIVE Sports Videos
Unafraid to share the pride he has in his players, Deer Lakes hockey coach Todd Luniewski believes a sixth Lancer should have made the PIHL Class A Northeast all-star team's roster.
Luniewski must settle for five all-stars, an amount that equals or surpasses the number of representatives any other Class A team will have in Sunday's game at Robert Morris University's Island Sports Center.
Perhaps more so than any other detail from this season, Deer Lakes' wealth of all-star selections illustrates the progress made by a program that did not field a varsity team two seasons ago and struggled to claim more than a couple of wins a year for much of the past decade. The team had two all-stars a season ago, two in 2010-11 and one in 2009-10.
As their all-star nods attest, senior Tommy Lisowski and juniors Vince Casale, Zack Luniewski, Mitchell Rupprecht and Jonathan Merlo — four forwards and a defenseman, respectively — are essential cogs for Deer Lakes (7-9), which remains in the Class A playoff hunt. Junior goaltender Jonathan Lang, in just his second season at the position, was named a Northeast team alternate.
With their help, the Lancers can finish with their highest win total since going 13-9 in 2002-03, which also was the last time Deer Lakes had a winning record.
“Talking to other coaches around the league, they know that now we can come in and score goals,” coach Luniewski said. “From where we were in the past to where we are now, we're far more respected.
“My top guys, I'd put them up against anybody in the league.”
Three one-goal losses, including a 6-5 setback to Mars (15-4), suggest Deer Lakes stands on the brink of even great success if it can execute slightly better in its final six regular-season games. Coming up just short against Class A's elite struck Luniewski and others as inconceivable just a couple of years ago.
“It just feels good to try and be an underdog,” Rupprecht said. “Teams that doubt us have been looking over their shoulders and are afraid to play us, because we can beat anybody now.”
After graduating four seniors, including two all star selections, from a 2010-11 team that went 1-18, Deer Lakes' coaches and players thought it best to let a young, overwhelmed group of Lancers — they had just two incoming seniors — play a junior varsity-only schedule in 2011-12. That team finished 12-4.
“It built my confidence playing JV,” Lisowski said. “If we'd just gone into varsity and had a season with no wins or one win, I don't think my confidence would be the same as it is now.”
That same season, Deer Lakes learned just how promising its future looked, as the freshman team went 17-0-1.
None of the Lancers worried that a step away from the varsity level might signal doom for Deer Lakes' program.
“I knew we'd get back to varsity as soon as we could, and that we'd be pretty successful,” Casale said.
In its first season back at the varsity level, Deer Lakes finished 9-14-1. The Lancers even won a playoff game, thumping South Fayette, 8-1, in the first round.
Just four seniors will graduate after this season, so Deer Lakes believes even greater achievements might await next winter. The Lancers consider themselves title contenders — Deer Lakes came closest to a hockey championship in 1998, when it went 21-2-1 and fell to Bishop McCort in the two-game Class A final series of the WPIHL, the PIHL's predecessor.
There's plenty of excitement among the current players about Deer Lakes' crop of eighth-graders.
“Our future seems like it's getting brighter,” Zack Luniewski said. “We just need to make sure these eighth-graders hang around for their high school years.”
While winning a Pens Cup sits a ways down the Lancers' to-do list, impressing at Sunday's all-star game is at the top of the agenda for Deer Lakes' five representatives.
“We want people to be a little scared of us come playoff time,” Merlo said, “and we're hoping to work toward that Sunday.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.