Plum hockey works through growing pains
By: Jerin Steele
Sunday, January 7, 2018 | 11:31 PM
The landscape of high school hockey can change quickly, and Plum has seen a pretty big shift.
After winning the PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup championship last year, the Mustangs were promoted to Class AAA and field one of the smallest and youngest rosters in the league's largest classification.
A dozen players moved on from last year's team, including seven of the top 10 scorers. That left the Mustangs with 15 players, four of whom are seniors, to go against full rosters of 20 each game. They are at the bottom of the standings with a 2-8 record entering Monday.
Playing the biggest schools with a short bench has provided challenges, but that's fine with Plum coach Vinnie Somma. He embraces the opportunity and the ability to teach a younger team his system after having a veteran group last season.
“It's just the way the cards fell for us, and it is fun to have the best competition in a division that our team probably shouldn't be in,” Somma said. “It's a good challenge for these kids to get better every game.
“Last year, we had the same core from the last two years, and we knew the game plan and how everything went from Day 1. We kind of have had to go back to basics this year and make sure we're playing the right way from our defensive zone to the neutral zone and then in the offensive zone.”
Though the Mustangs are in last place, they are four points behind Canon-McMillan for the final playoff spot. Plum has played one fewer game than the Big Macs.
Hope remains, but so does the urgency to start getting results before their window closes.
“We are right there, but we're running out of time,” Somma said. “We have to start winning some games pretty quickly. As a coaching staff, we can only say that we're not out of it until we're on the wrong side of it looking in.”
To earn more victories, Somma said every player needs to do a better job of being consistent. The leadership core is in place with team captain Louis Poprocky, a junior defenseman, and the senior quartet of Anthony Adamski, Domenic Borriello, Colin Patton and goalie Sergio Benitez.
The Mustangs earned wins over Canon-McMillan and Central Catholic. They lost close ones to North Allegheny (2-1), which ranks third in the league, and to Bethel Park (3-2). But they also have had some lopsided games, which include an 11-0 loss to Butler and a 7-1 defeat against Cathedral Prep.
Another area where the Mustangs need improvement is the goal-scoring department. They are averaging less than two goals, which is last in Class AAA. Borriello and Adamski lead the team with four goals apiece.
“We've played some one-goal games that as a coaching staff we really liked what we saw, but the problem is we have played four games where we were awful,” Somma said. “In those (lopsided) games, we didn't come to the rink ready for the game, and we didn't warm up like we were ready for the game. You could see it on the ice.
“It's disheartening when you have games where you can see in the shift that we weren't ready to play. Then there are some days where we're on the opposite side of the coin. We are battling every shift to play against teams. If we can play tight and win a few of these last eight, we'll be in business. All that matters is how we play down the stretch. All we have to do is sneak in the door.”
Plum played an exhibition game with Burrell on Dec. 22 at Valley Sports Complex, both teams' home rink, to honor fallen New Kensington police officer Brian Shaw, who was killed in the line of duty Nov. 17. The event raised $5,000 for the Brian Shaw Memorial Fund.
“It was an honor to be one of the teams playing for such a great cause,” Somma said. “It was absolutely unfortunate what happened. Burrell is a great community, and Plum is a great community. What it comes down to is communities helping each other out in a time of need. We got to play a little hockey. We raised a lot of money, and we're grateful that we got to help out.”
Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.