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Sewickley Academy hockey hopes to keep making strides

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2017, 11:00 p.m.

Sewickley Academy's hockey team can count adaptability among its strengths.

Upon rejoining the PIHL last season, the Panthers weren't sure what to expect. They set long-term goals of finishing with a .500 record and reaching the Penguins Cup Class A playoffs.

They achieved that milestone this season when an 8-3 win over Wheeling Catholic secured a 9-9 record for Sewickley Academy and strengthened its playoff positioning.

“It's awesome. Those were our goals from the beginning of the year. It feels great to accomplish this,” Sewickley Academy junior goaltender Cole Luther said. “It's something we've been trying to build for over the last couple of years. It feels really good to get .500 and get to the playoffs.”

The record represents a big step forward from the 3-18-1 mark the Panthers posted last season, their first back in the PIHL after three years in the Independent School Hockey League. The program's playoff berth is the first since 2011, its last in the PIHL. Sewickley Academy's program took off the 2011-12 season.

Sewickley Academy will play Bishop McCort (13-5) in a Class A play-in game at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cambria County War Memorial.

“There was a lot of doubt in people's minds entering the season. But this year has been a huge morale booster,” Luther said. “It's going to be big for the program moving forward for the next couple years. We have a lot of young players, so it's going to be promising.”

Chris Chiusano took over as coach last summer. He helped accelerate the team's growth and didn't let the players dwell on the 18 losses.

“The second year being in the PIHL helps, but coach does a great job. He keeps us productive and makes sure we get the skill work we need,” senior captain Joey Straka said. “We never waste a second of practice, and that's always good. We're in the weight room every other day. The hard work is just paying off for us.”

Chiusano has been pleased with the progression.

“I am proud of them for being able to accomplish what they have this season after going 3-18-1 last year. We've made great strides,” he said. “Finishing .500 and getting into the playoffs will build a lot of confidence, and hopefully, attract some players who didn't play hockey here before or were on the fence about whether to play or not. I think it'll do some pretty good things for our program.”

Success wasn't immediate for the team as it started this season 0-3. However, as players from the Panthers fall sports teams trickled in and joined their teammates on the ice and the other players got more comfortable, the squad gained some traction.

“Last year was tough being the first year in this league. We got our feet wet and had an opportunity to experience the level at which teams in this division play. We kind of matched that level this year,” Luther said. “At the beginning of the year, if you looked at the stats, they were not promising, but we've gotten a lot better as the year has gone on, too, which is something I don't think we had last year. We're dynamic this year. We've really built upon the foundations we've set, and we've made a lot of improvements.”

The Panthers used a 4-1 finish to surge up the standings. It earned them the West Division's No. 6 seed.

“We've had a little streakiness throughout the season — we'd go on a run and then drop a few and then go back on a run. I like the way we finished the regular season, definitely on a good note heading into playoffs,” Chiusano said.

“It's one thing to get there, but you want to get there and maybe make some noise. I think there are some teams that maybe will overlook us or not be real pleased about having to play us. We'll see what happens.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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