Hampton coach encouraged by team’s effort despite early struggles

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Saturday, January 21, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Hampton first-year hockey coach Buck McKee is short on wins and players, but he has an abundance of one thing — optimism.

“I’m really excited about Hampton hockey moving forward,” he said. “We’re doing with what we have. They are making leaps and bounds, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Hampton was 2-11 as of Jan. 22 and near the bottom of the PIHL Class A Blue Division standings. The Talbots had been outscored 93-28, while trying to compete with 14 skaters, the thinnest roster among 56 teams at all levels of the PIHL.

But the team’s improvement is unmistakable, even if the progress isn’t reflected in its record.

Consider the Talbots’ two meetings with Indiana.

In the Oct. 3 season opener, the Talbots trailed visiting Indiana by six goals after two periods on the way to a 9-0 lifeless loss in which they were outshot 50-6.

In the Jan. 12 rematch, Hampton, despite playing with just 10 skaters, fought host Indiana to a 6-2 loss in which the score was tied late in the second period and Indiana managed just one goal in the third.

Both games went into the books as a loss. But the coaches and players know the two efforts couldn’t have been more different.

“That says a lot,” junior defenseman Andrew Bagnato said. “We had 10 skaters. Indiana had three, four lines. The amount of effort that we had to give to keep that game tied through the second period was absolutely great. That shows how much we really improved from the beginning of the year.”

Bagnato pairs with senior defender Erica Gynn to form the Talbots’ top defensive tandem. They try to reduce the pressure on junior goaltender Nathan Dembowski, who is facing an average of 46 shots per game, or nearly one per minute.

“He makes great saves and keeps us in the games,” McKee said of Dembowski. “(Bagnato and Gynn) are a solid pair. They are at every game, they play hard, they work well together.

“To be honest, they are the only constant (defensive) pairing that we’ve had this year. Other than Erica and Andrew, I have no set lines, per se. No set anything. It’s just ‘Who is here tonight and how are we going to make this work?’ “

The brightest spot this season is junior forward Sean Sullivan, who has scored a team-high 12 goals in 11 games. The rest of the Talbots have combined to score 16 goals.

Sullivan netted a hat trick against Wheeling Catholic on Dec. 12, including a late short-handed goal to clinch the 5-3 win, the Talbots’ lone victory since late October.

Junior forward Joey Vinciguerra is second on the team with seven points (3 goals, 4 assists).

Senior defender Cody Bianco, the team’s lone PIHL All-Star last year, has missed a handful of games, and junior forward James Elk, who last season led the team in assists, has only played eight games, managing two points (1g, 1a) all season.

“His numbers aren’t where he’d like them to be,” McKee said of Elk.

But the youngsters have shown promise. Freshman Gavin Durden is tied for third with five points despite only playing in seven games, and freshman Eli Schwarzbach has added five points while playing in every game this season.

“I think we are in a pretty good spot,” Bagnato said. “Next year is looking pretty good. Everyone is chipping in and staying positive this year.”

Hampton is 16-53 since 2019, but McKee is encouraged by the progress this season. The Talbots will graduate only three seniors, so the numbers should be improved next season.

“We’re taking baby steps,” McKee said. “It takes players time to learn how to win and, more importantly, how to handle these losses. And they are doing very well with all of that.”

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