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Long-struggling Deer Lakes hockey gains notice

| Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Freeport's Rob Reichenbaugh attempts to take down Deer Lakes' Jonathan Merlo during the hockey game at Ice Connection in Valencia on Tuesday, January 28, 2014.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Freeport's Rob Reichenbaugh edges out Deer Lakes' Zachary Luniewski during the hockey game at Ice Connection in Valencia on Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

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.”

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