Deer Lakes hockey team moves back up after restoring confidence
Deer Lakes Hockey Club took a temporary step backward last season with the goal of taking big strides forward in the long run.
That patient game plan reinvigorated the Lancers — perhaps quicker than expected.
After struggling at the varsity level of the PIHL for several seasons and then deciding to take a one-year break, Deer Lakes has made a promising return to varsity action.
The Class A Lancers (2-1-1) were undefeated through their first three games before losing to South Park, 6-3, on Thursday.
“It was a hard decision but the right decision,” Deer Lakes coach Todd Luniewski said about the one-year intermission from varsity play. “We felt it would be better if we took the season off (from varsity). We thought we'd develop skills and gain confidence, and we'd learn systematic hockey. It's worked very well.”
Two seasons ago, Deer Lakes won only one of 21 varsity games. Last season, the organization's board voted to form only junior varsity and freshman teams so their players, mostly eighth- through 11th-graders, could gain experience while playing against opponents comparable in age.
The Lancers ended up claiming the PIHL freshman title with an 18-0-1 record; the JVs went 13-4-1.
With increased experience and restored confidence, Deer Lakes decided it was time to take on varsity foes again.
“It's really great being back (at the varsity level),” Deer Lakes senior goaltender Lucas Gapsky said. “I had played varsity before. It's a lot faster. I missed that intensity.”
Gapsky, one of five seniors on the roster, has emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises through the first three weeks of the PIHL season.
Less than a month before the season opened, the projected starting goaltender, junior Matt Olesnevich, learned he would miss the season because of ankle problems.
With no experienced backup goalie to call upon, Gapsky volunteered to move from defender and take over in net. The Eagle Scout proved he was prepared, posting a .814 save percentage and 3.37 goals-against average.
“At this point, he's doing an incredible job,” Luniewski said. “I couldn't be more impressed.”
Offensively, sophomore forward Vincent Casale leads Deer Lakes with 10 points (4 goals, 6 assists). The Lancers' balanced attack also features sophomore forwards Zach Luniewski (5-4-9) and Mitchel Rupprecht (5-3-8), sophomore defenseman Jonathan Merlo (2-4-6), senior forward Jack Sherer (2-3-5), junior forward Justin Vecchio (2-2-4) and senior forward Charles Dombroski (3-0-3).
Deer Lakes suffered a setback when Rupprecht broke his hand after the second game. He's expected to miss about three weeks, according to Luniewski.
But with a strong group of underclassmen, it appears Deer Lakes will have considerable firepower for years to come. The Lancers have outscored their opponents, 26-17.
When Rupprecht returns to the lineup, Deer Lakes will have 18 healthy players — a good turnout for a Class A team. The Lancers usually run three lines but sometimes add a fourth. On the other hand, Deer Lakes only has four defenders, but several of the top forwards have been throw in as defenders to add depth and skill.
“Things are definitely very positive,” Luniewski said. “We're headed forward and up. We're looking forward to playing powerhouse teams like Quaker Valley and Mars. We want to see how we do against them. Our motto is: No matter what's put in front of us, let's figure out a way to win.”
Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-224-2696.