Hampton hockey hanging tough despite struggles

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Friday, December 20, 2019 | 6:54 PM


Hampton hockey is still a playoff contender despite its 2-9 record.

The record could lead one to assume the Talbots aren’t competitive, but that has not been the case. Four one-goal losses and three more by three goals or less, coupled with an inability to close out games, have left the Talbots looking up just past the midway point in the season.

“I was saying (before the Baldwin game), ‘We’re the best 2-7 team of all time,’ ” coach Luke Leya said.

Before a blowout loss to the undefeated Highlanders, the Talbots held a positive goal differential, which was far more indicative of their performance and unusual for a team with a deep hole to crawl out of.

“If we come back to seven to nine wins toward the end of the season, we’re in the mix,” Leya said. “I think a lot of the kids understand that. You have a bunch of seniors that don’t want to hear we’re going to be so much better next year. So you have to keep everybody engaged.”

The team discussed the things it needs to change if it wants to compete in January.

“We’re going to take this break to reset,” said senior goalie and captain Jake McGee. “Refocus and really go for that outside chance that we do have that can help the boys continue to work and grow as players.”

It should be easier to stay focused knowing the team sits three games behind Armstrong for the last playoff spot with seven games remaining on the schedule, leaving a window for a second-half surge for a team that has been right there in most of its games.

“We’re a very young team,” McGee said. “I think the beginning part of this season has shown that. We’re in most of these games, but we don’t close it out like we need to. We talked about that, taking responsibility for what we’re going to do as a unit moving forward.”

The players leading the team offensively are predominantly underclassmen. Hampton’s top three scorers will return next year. Freshman Joey Pankowski (18 points) and sophomore Logan Scanlon (12 points), as well as Mitch Hurst (14 points), have given Hampton hope for now and the future.

“They have both absolutely exceeded expectations,” Leya said. “They’re very easily making the transition to the varsity level.”

Pankowski (Pittsburgh Hockey Academy) and Scanlon (Esmark) both play for travel teams.

“Sometimes playing on that second travel team, you’re getting more ice time and practice time,” Leya said. “It helps keep them in condition. Especially on a team like us where we’re typically two or three short due to injury, they never stop. They always have energy and are hungry.”

Senior Luke Reiser has been unavailable much of the season because of travel team commitments and illness, but his schedule opens up over the holiday, and he should give the team a major boost.

“He’s just a really good leader with the kids,” Leya said. “He’s got experience and pedigree. He’s not going to put four or five pucks in every night, but you can count on him in any situation. … He’s essentially a jack of all trades that can play anywhere.

“He’s versatile and can play the game smart on each side of the ice.”

On the defensive end, McGee, a four-year starter, holds a 4.36 goals-against and .879 save percentage facing a higher shot volume and a couple of games that have gotten out of hand.

McGee was lauded by his coach for taking blame for the losses, even if many of the goals were because of breakdowns in the defensive zone or other issues.

Christian Cerrone, a first-year varsity defenseman, has also been a pleasant surprise.

“He’s been a very steady stay-at-home defenseman,” Leya said. “Fast, smart with the puck. He’s not hovering around the scoresheet, but at the other end, he’s not typically a minus. He just makes smart plays for a first time varsity guy.”

The rough start has provided a challenge for the young players and Leya to keep the team motivated.

“You have to relate to them that any high school sporting event, it’s no different set of rules than living in the real world,” Leya said. “You can’t start mailing it in, show up late, not care about warm-ups. As soon as you do that in the employed world or college, you’re either fired or on the probation list.

“Just keeping them reminded into how it can translate into making them better men is what they’ve bought into.”

McGee is excited to start fresh in January with an opportunity most two-win teams don’t have.

“Don’t write us off,” McGee said. “We’re definitely in our struggle, but we’re a gritty organization. We always have been. It doesn’t always go right for us, but we’re going to keep fighting through the entire year.”

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