Defending PIHL champion North Allegheny plans to enjoy the ride

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Saturday, October 9, 2021 | 11:01 AM


The lake wasn’t frozen, so the North Allegheny hockey team traded its sticks for oars and competed in the Pittsburgh Dragon Boat Festival at North Park.

In a long, skinny canoe that seats 20 rowers, they zipped across the water last month.

On that day, the goal was to go fast. But coach Mike Bagnato has a senior-heavy lineup, so as the reigning PIHL Class AAA champions begin their title defense, he’s urging his players to slow down a bit and have some fun.

The 20-game regular season runs from now through February.

“We’re not going to think about four or five months from now,” Bagnato said. “I just want us to have fun and enjoy it. This week, let’s enjoy playing Mt. Lebanon. Next week, we’ll enjoy playing Bethel or whatever it is. Let’s enjoy every practice. Let’s not let it rush by us.”

Connor Chi, one of the PIHL’s top scorers, leads a deep group of senior forwards that includes Luke Washabaugh, Cole Jackman, Shane O’Neill and Nolan Colinear.

Junior forwards Matt Irvin and Nate Spak also will handle key minutes. Yet, Spak won’t join the hockey lineup until after football season, where he plays linebacker.

Chi was the second-leading scorer in the PIHL last season with 37 points, a total that ranks first among returning players. He had 14 goals in the regular season and scored three more in NA’s playoff run, including the go-ahead goal in the PIHL finals.

“We have a really solid core of forwards coming back,” Bagnato said.

The Tigers lost only five players from last year’s lineup, but that short list included starting goalie Josh Bailey. He’ll be replaced by sophomore Rylan Murphy and senior Andrew Long.

The team also lost third-leading scorer Austin Peterson, a junior forward who moved out of state.

Junior Trey Gallo, a 27-point scorer, leads NA’s defensemen once again, and the Tigers also have a pair of experienced seniors in Kyle Holmes and Will Mench.

Joining them on the blue line is sophomore Owen Logan, who earned varsity experience last season, sophomore Evan Barnhart and freshman Travis Lamark, the younger brother of a former NA star. Lamark’s brother, Tyler, is a sophomore forward at John Carroll.

North Allegheny won a PIHL title last season for the second time in three years (there was no champion in 2020), but many of Bagnato’s traditional team-building activities were nixed during the pandemic.

There was no golf outing. No games of “capture the flag” or swings on the driving range. No games of billiards or table tennis in Bagnato’s basement after film sessions.

This fall, that’s all back along with an on-time start to the season. Last season didn’t begin until November.

“It’s nice to see the season start on time, and it’s also nice that it’s been fairly normal,” Bagnato said. “We’ve done a lot of stuff we did back in normal times.”

With covid restrictions eased, Bagnato’s team will travel out of state this winter for several events. The Tigers will take part in tournaments in Jamestown, N.Y., and one at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. There’s also a tournament they’ll enter in Meadville.

The hockey team took part in the dragon boat races Sept. 26 to support Bagnato’s wife Janice and Hearts of Steel, a rowing team of breast cancer survivors that includes her.

“It’s for a really good cause,” Bagnato said, “and they really do have a blast.”

Seneca Valley’s hockey team also took part in the boat races.

“They beat us on a photo finish,” he said. “It was really a lot of fun.”

NA likely has the talent for another good playoff run. But sticking to his plan of not to look too far ahead, Bagnato won’t speculate about winning another title.

“We will certainly be competing for a top spot. That’s our goal,” he said. “But I’m really looking forward to the year. This is a really good group of kids. I’ve been lucky with a lot of good groups of kids, not just here but on other teams throughout the years. I really, really like the way these kids work, the way they listen, the fun that they have at practice.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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