Freeport hockey to lean on large group of underclassmen

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Monday, October 24, 2022 | 12:02 PM


The Freeport hockey program knows success.

Although Freeport finished with an 8-10-0-1 record last season, the Yellowjackets racked up a 16-4 mark in 2020-21.

Both teams corralled second place in the Varsity A Blue division, and the 2020-21 squad advanced to the semifinal round of the PIHL playoffs.

Freeport was led that season by senior forwards Keith Smilowitz, Addison Stewart and Nico Disanti and sophomore forward Caleb Hoffman. All four finished in double figures in goals scored.

Freshman goaltender Tyler Lang posted a 16-4 record and 2.15 goals-against average.

Last year, senior forwards Marcus Trask and Paul Zecca attained double digits in goals, and Lang logged a 3.06 GAA.

This year’s team is led by Lang, the lone junior, and five seniors. The rest of the roster is made up of sophomores and freshmen.

“Every year, the goal is to make the playoffs and a run at the Pens Cup,” coach Kelly Mason said. “We understand the unique challenge that presents this year’s team because of our young group. The sophomores and freshmen make up almost 70% of our roster.

“The upside is we have good leadership, and the players are bought into the process.”

Lang is serving as an alternate captain this season.

“Tyler’s athleticism is off the charts,” Mason said. “He tracks and controls the puck very well and seldom gives up rebound opportunities. Tyler doesn’t get flustered if he gives up a goal. He has the ability to just focus on the next shot on goal and doesn’t dwell on the negative, a trait most successful goaltenders possess. He has been like this for as long as I’ve known him, going back to when he was in eighth grade. Tyler is a vocal leader who really understands the game.”

Lang, who has a 3.5 GPA, is on the ice just about year-round.

“I’m always tied up with hockey,” he said. “I don’t play any other sports because of how much time hockey takes up. We are a very young team this season, and I am going to try to do whatever I can to watch our new kids grow. My expectation for the team is to be just as good as last season.

“This team has potential to be a powerhouse within a few years. We have solid systems that we spend a lot of our time working on in practices.”

Defensively, the Yellowjackets are led by two seniors, captain Jake Suwan and alternate captain Nick Dobransky, a four-year starter.

“Jake, obviously, brings strong leadership to the team,” Mason said, “and Nick is a very good defenseman with a ton of offensive skills.”

Suwan, who has a 3.78 GPA, believes one of his duties as an upperclassman and team captain is to focus on both this year and the future.

“We have a very young team with nine freshmen on our 17-man roster,” Suwan said. “Yes, we want to win games, but our bigger goal this year is to nurture our underclassmen to be the next stars of Freeport hockey. The upperclassmen before us have done a spectacular job of it, and we want to continue that tradition.

“Our strength as a team (is) being able to run our systems. Our coaches have brought us a set of systems that have worked with previous teams, such as our playoff team in 2020-21. That proved to us the systems work and, as long as we run them, we will compete with any team.”

Lang and Suwan also participate in club hockey. Lang’s club team played an NHL-like 71 games last year.

“I play for the Pittsburgh Vengeance,” Lang said. “Last season, my travel team (was) the Steel City Ice Renegades. Our season ended with us winning the Tier 2 national championship.”

Suwan competes with the Armstrong Arrows 18U AA national-bound program in the offseason.

The first line on Freeport’s hockey team this year is centered by senior Joe Liput, an alternate captain who is flanked by Jake Miller and Zack Bowser, both sophomore forwards.

“It’s early, but I expect big things from this line,” Mason said.

The second line consists of freshman center Aiden Bauman, freshman Bantam Semanko and senior Ethan Rapp.

“Aiden shows great situational awareness,” Mason said. “He sees the whole sheet of ice and has a very high hockey IQ for a freshman. The sky is the limit for him.”

The PIHL season is a long one with the schedule running from early October until the end of February. Despite losing their first two games, the Yellowjackets remain positive.

“Like every other team, we want to win as much as possible, but we also want to focus on our underclassmen and helping them grow into the players of the future of Freeport hockey,” Suwan said, “so the organization can have a successful future.

“Another strength of our team is how much of a family we are. We are vocal and help each other whenever someone needs it. You don’t notice the difference between the grade levels because of that family mentality. We’re a team, and we’re going to act like one.”

Mason, president of M&K Management in Sarver, is in his fifth season as Freeport’s coach. His basic coaching philosophy revolves around playing intelligent hockey.

“We strive to be a smart, fast and a physical hockey team, with an emphasis on playing ‘smart,’ ” he said. “When our players know and can execute our systems, and we combine that with playing fast and physical, we can compete with anyone.

“I coached amateur hockey for many years. High school hockey is a little different because of the different skill levels on the same team, which you don’t generally have on the amateur teams. I’ve really enjoyed my time here at Freeport.”

The PIHL has expanded the Varsity A Blue Division to 11 teams for 2022-23.

Along with Freeport, division teams consist of Fox Chapel Area, Greensburg Salem, Hampton, Indiana, Kiski Area, Norwin, Plum, Shaler Area, Westmont Hilltop and Wheeling Catholic.

“The realignment doesn’t matter to us,” Mason said. “We must focus on winning hockey games; the rest will take care of itself.”

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