Defense fuels Latrobe hockey’s fast start
Two years ago, Latrobe’s hockey team surprised PIHL Class 2A when it reached the Penguins Cup final as one of the lower seeds.
The Wildcats experienced their own shock last season. As one of the top seed in the playoffs, Latrobe had its hopes of returning to the Penguins Cup championship game dashed when it fell to Quaker Valley, 1-0, in overtime in the first round.
“That motivated us to a lot. It was a hard way to go out, knowing we had a good team,” Latrobe senior Cole Novak said. “We kept a lot of our core guys offensively and have some back on defense. We feel like we could go far this year and do well.”
The team made a few tweaks to maximize its personnel.
“The coaching staff evaluated what worked well for us and the things we’d have to change to adapt to the kind of team we have. We made some changes internally. We’re all really pleased with how it’s working. Everyone is starting to believe in what we can do,” Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “We’re working together as a group as opposed to individuals doing their own things. I think that really shows in our goals against and goals scored. Everyone being on the same page all starts with the upperclassmen.”
One change is a commitment to team defense.
“We started a new system this year, and I feel it works really well,” Novak said. “We lost a lot of seniors on defense. I feel like a lot of the upperclassmen have stepped up and played good defense and are blocking a lot of shots. That’s helped us limit shots for other teams and turned into some good offense for us so far.”
Lane Ruffner, Darick Hrtyanski and Ean Lamolinara returned with the most experience at defense. Valentino Plaitano, Dalton Lute and Nick Byrd see time on the blue line, as well.
“We lost a lot on the back end, but the new kids on the team have really been stepping up and are playing their roles and playing within their means,” Werner said. “That’s good to see at such a young age for some of these guys.”
Gage Handwork is back at goalie for the Wildcats.
“Man, is he playing lights-out for us. We had two shutouts in our first two games. Upper St. Clair gave us a run for our money, but he really stood on his head in those three games. He kept us in them early and let the forwards and others do the work to get the puck in the net,” Werner said. “He is solid back there, and we know what he’s capable of and how well he’s playing.”
The defensive effort helped fuel Latrobe’s 3-0 start. The Wildcats posted 5-0 shutouts over Baldwin and Franklin Regional and rallied to down Upper St. Clair, 5-4, in overtime.
“We started off pretty well, and that’s always good,” Novak said. “We hit a little bump in the road against Upper St. Clair, but coming back and winning in overtime really motivates the guys and gets us going for our next game against Plum.”
Offense has come easy for Latrobe. Greg Ferri leads the way with six goals and nine points. Novak has four goals and five points, and Jarred Stein has two goals and five points. Alex Walker has six assists.
“We have a lot of returning forwards, and we know what it takes to produce a big goal or a big play to help the team out,” Novak said.
The Wildcats hope to lean on their experience throughout the season.
“What’s good about our team now, our core guys have been to a Penguins Cup and know what it takes. They went through that loss to Quaker Valley. They experienced heartbreak and won close games and won a section title,” Werner said.
“They see the success they’ve had but just haven’t been able to put it all together. The core group of this team is putting it all together this year. They see what it takes to get to the next level. Every practice and game, it’s starting to come together. It’s nice to be 3-0, but those games are over, and we have 17 more to go. We have to show up every game and practice and give our best effort. If we do that, good things will come. The experienced players understand that and what to expect and how much they need to work at it.”