Franklin Regional hockey looks forward to early PIHL Class AA tests

Sunday, November 5, 2017 | 6:57 PM

After dominating PIHL Class A the past two years with a pair of Penguins Cup championships, Franklin Regional looked forward to the challenge of moving up to Class AA this year.

It's been more of the same for the Panthers (3-1), though. After opening the schedule with a 6-3 setback to Hampton, Franklin Regional rattled off wins against Penn-Trafford (6-1), Baldwin (7-1) and Upper St. Clair (6-2).

“The adjustment has been OK. We're seeing better competition, and the games are a lot more competitive. It's been good and positive for us,” Franklin Regional coach Brian Kurtz said. “I definitely have seen improvement.

“That first game, I think there were a lot of butterflies with some of our younger guys. We were trying to figure out ourselves as a coaching staff, where some of those guys fit in and could play. Each game has gotten better, and they are getting more comfortable. Things have been coming along really nice.”

The team graduated some key players from last year's championship squad, which fell to Bayard Rustin, 2-1, in overtime in the state championship.

“We lost a lot of seniors from last year. We're just working on building up the lines. The more games and the more experience we get together, I think we should continue to get better,” goaltender Dan Soltesz said. “The first couple of summer practices, we seemed a little off. As the games and practices go on, I think our skill as a team is improving a lot.”

The team graduated top scorer Jamie Mauro, but Olda Virag and Nick Carretta are back to power the offense. Virag leads the squad with eight points, and Carretta has seven. Mathieu Sliva, Jason Haines, Kevin Cakanac, Justin Carter, Nick Zeto and Trent Lunden have contributed offensively as well.

“Olda and Nick have been a really big part in generating offense, along with some new guys stepping up, which has been important for us,” Soltesz said. “Everybody has been producing throughout the lines.”

Tommy Rafferty and Ethan Yohe bring experience to the defense and stabilize the blue line.

“Those two guys are back from last year, but the younger guys are doing really well stepping up and making things as easy as they can for me,” Soltesz said. “I like to communicate with them as much as I can to help them out. I want to make them feel reassured that I have their backs because I know they have mine.”

The team is in the midst of a grueling early stretch. The Panthers knocked off previously unbeaten Upper St. Clair on Oct. 26. They return to action Monday against Hempfield (4-0), which leads Class AA with eight points.

“They are undefeated, but Upper St. Clair was undefeated and we took them down,” Soltesz said. “We'll try with Hempfield, too. We know they have some good players. We're looking forward to that game.”

Franklin Regional wraps up the week with a Thursday game against Pine-Richland (2-1-1).

“It's going to be a big test for us. Looking at our schedule, we knew we were in for a very tough road, with Upper St. Clair being the first out of the three,” Kurtz said. “We've taken that cliche of focusing on one game at a time. We know, with Hempfield being in our division, that'll it be a big game for us.

“As a coaching staff, we're excited to kind of see where we are as a team and where our weaknesses are. The season is a marathon, but playing a team like Hempfield, we know they'll be one of the top teams at the end of the season. It'll be a good measuring stick for us to see where we need to focus on, moving forward.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.


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