Deer Lakes hockey team off to strong start in return to PIHL

Monday, November 7, 2022 | 12:35 PM

Varsity hockey has returned to Deer Lakes High School this season.

The Lancers won their first three games against the likes of Wilmington, 8-1, Central Valley, 8-1, and Carrick, 5-2.

“I am extremely proud of the boys thus far, especially since this is our first varsity team in years to take the ice,” coach Jonathan Merlo said. “They are a mature, talented and wise group of young men who have bought into one another for a common goal. What I love seeing is how much of a team game we are playing at the moment which has contributed to our defensive and offensive power.

“Starting 3-0 is not a surprise to us, but we do understand that the work ethic needs to continue in order to keep the success we have. The coaching staff is excited to see how this group evolves as the year continues.”

There are 24 players listed on the 2022-23 roster, including two seniors, 14 juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen. Deer Lakes is a co-op team with players from Ambridge, Apollo-Ridge, Aquinas Academy, Eden Christian and St. Joseph.

The Lancers are members of the PIHL Varsity D2 Gold Division and were tied for first place with Bishop Canevin with 3-0 records, followed by Neshannock (2-0) and Burrell (2-0). Wilmington (1-3) and Central Valley rounded out the standings.

“We are looking forward to striving for more success as the season goes on,” Merlo said, “and I believe teams should take note of the return of Deer Lakes this year as we plan on making some noise. Our goal is to make the playoffs and contend for a D2 championship.”

An early season highlight for Deer Lakes was its Oct. 24 win against Carrick at Alpha Ice Complex, the Lancers’ home ice.

Sophomore forward Ryan Grunden had a hat trick, and junior forward Shawn McIntyre added two goals to lead Deer Lakes and hand Carrick its first loss of the season.

A.J. Schaaf, a junior forward, contributed four assists.

“I’m extremely happy with our team’s performance and have high expectations that we will continue to grow and become an even stronger team then we are now,” Schaaf said. “Our strength would have to be the chemistry we built very quickly for us being a team combined of multiple schools. It has helped us succeed on the ice, and we’ve become a family off the ice.”

Schaaf also plays AAA hockey for the South Hills Panther 16U team, which is based in Bethel Park. He formerly played baseball in the summer months.

After three games, Schaaf led the Lancers in scoring with four goals and four assists. McIntyre and Grunden netted four goals apiece, and junior forward Gio Porco peppered in three goals.

“I feel as though my personal season has been pretty solid,” Schaaf said. “I always have room for improvement and have expectations that I hope to meet by the end of the season.”

Junior defenseman Hank Szenyeri shared the team lead with Schaaf with four assists to go along with his one goal.

Junior forward R.J. Noullet netted two goals and three assists, and three other Deer Lakes skaters knocked in one goal: junior forwards Mark Rauenswinter and Jack “JZ” Zawalnicki and freshman forward Nick Kozub.

Ben Korol, a senior goaltender, stood at 3-0 with a 1.44 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. Korol allowed four goals on 63 shots. Junior Aaron Haney is a reserve goaltender.

Korol, like Schaaf, competes for a travel team. Korol also coaches middle school goalies this season for his senior project with Deer Lakes.

“I’m very happy with how our (varsity) team has performed so far this season,” Korol said. “We have had great coaching, and all the players have contributed to our success. Defensively, we have been very consistent, which has benefited me greatly.

“With my teams’ previous early exits from the playoffs. I’m expecting this team to make a deep run into the playoffs and compete for a championship. I’m grateful and excited that we are off to a great start, and I’m happy to part of the Deer Lakes Hockey program.

The Lancers’ defensive corps consists of juniors David McCombs, Jackson Vollmer, Owen Neidig and Szenyeri, along with sophomores Carter Catalano, Jake Bradley and Ryan Bogacz.

Bogacz, Bradley and Szenyeri are the team’s top defensive players.

Grunden, Schaaf and McIntyre skate together on Line 1 for the Lancers. Line 2 consists of Porco, Rauenswinter and Noullet.

“At the moment, we do have two sustained lineups that seem to have good chemistry,” Merlo said. “These lineups are interchangeable in terms of a top line for the club.

“I also want to note that (junior forward) Zach Nacey orchestrates our third line but has the ability to play on the top two lines. Zach also plays crucial minutes on the power play and penalty kill units.”

Merlo’s basic coaching philosophy involves players understanding their roles while on the ice.

“Play smart, simple and supportive hockey while limiting the number of penalties we take,” he said. “There is no need to overcomplicate the game as it can get complex while it occurs. If our players understand their roles, then our chances of success increase.”

Merlo is assisted by Pat Brick, Robert Grunden, Patrick Keenan and Pietro Porco this season. Merlo is a 2015 Deer Lakes graduate and was a 5-foot-8, 135-pound all-star defenseman for the Lancers. In his heyday, he was known as a defensive player with an offensive mindset.

The 26-year-old Merlo started out in 2019 as an assistant coach for Deer Lakes, where he remained an assistant through the 2020-21 season. After that year, he took over as head coach for the Deer Lakes Hockey Club.

“I have been around the game of hockey most of my life,” Merlo said. “I started out playing amateur hockey in PAHL for Butler Valley — now called Yetis — and as our group of players aged, we transitioned from PAHL-play to PAHL-plus AAA independent tournaments. I have played with and against some extremely talented hockey players that have gone on to play at high-level hockey. I also played for Deer Lakes in middle school through my high school years until I graduated in 2015 as an assistant captain for the team.

“Overall, Deer Lakes Hockey Club strives to provide an opportunity for students in all its co-op schools to play competitive ice hockey. We help foster the development of their hockey skills, promote social relationships among our members, engender community spirit and encourage scholastic achievement.”

Along with teams in the Varsity D2 Gold division, the following teams compete in the Varsity D2 Blue Division: Ringgold, Carrick, Connellsville, Morgantown, Elizabeth Forward and Trinity.

“The PIHL Division 2 is no different from the other three divisions (AAA, AA, A) at the varsity level with the exception it was expressly created for teams formed by co-operative agreements,” Merlo said. “In other words, the PIHL provides opportunities for schools to join together in order to play at a highly competitive level. For some players, this is the only chance student-athletes have to compete in interscholastic hockey.

“Through the growth of our program, this season marks the first in Deer Lakes Hockey history to roster a team in all levels — varsity, junior varsity and middle school. In addition to the teams competing in the PIHL, our program has a developmental team that allows student-athletes in primary school (K-5) to compete on an independent schedule wearing their school colors.”

Deer Lakes will play two games — both on the road — in November. The Lancers will oppose Ringgold at 6:15 p.m. Nov. 17 at Rostraver Ice Garden and Bishop Canevin at 9 p.m. Nov. 21 at Ice Castle Arena.


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