Hampton hockey making dramatic improvements

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020 | 11:28 PM


The Hampton hockey team last season needed three months to reach two wins.

This season the Talbots did it in eight days.

“Honestly, we are a completely different team,” junior defenseman Owen Cirlingione said. “There is not a bad player on this team.”

Hampton opened the delayed 2020-21 season with a 9-2 victory at Plum on Nov. 2 and followed with a 5-4 win against visiting Armstrong. The Talbots suffered their first loss, 10-2, at Franklin Regional on Nov. 17.

The quick start is a dramatic shift from last season’s gloomy struggle, when the Talbots slumped to a 3-15 mark and finished with the second-worst record in the 16-team PIHL Class AA.

But coach Luke Leya’s team returned five of its top six scorers, including sophomore forward Joey Pankowski (11 goals-9 assists) and senior center Mitch Hurst (7-8).

Pankowski and Hurst combined for five goals and nine assists in the first three games this season, and junior goalie Brendon Frankel has settled into his new full-time role after backing up graduated former PIHL All-Star Jake Meyer.

“We were pretty young last year,” said Leya, in his third season. “We were pretty confident going (into this year) that we would be a little bit more competitive. … It’s a good start.”

The hockey season was delayed about seven weeks because of covid-19 restrictions. The compacted schedules — for high school and travel teams — has resulted in reduced available ice time, meaning the Talbots are practicing 25% less this season, down from twice a week to a total of three times every two weeks.

But with so many returning top players, the Talbots were better suited than some other teams to adjust to the condensed landscape. Hampton, which plays home games at Frozen Pond Arena in Valencia, was scheduled to return to action at Penn-Trafford on Nov. 24. The Talbots are part of the four-team PIHL Class AA Northeast Division with Armstrong, Plum and Shaler.

“Last year definitely got us more prepared for this year,” Cirlingione said. “We started to get some chemistry last year, but we just brought our team together as a whole this year and we are starting to win games.”

Joining Cirlingione as top defensemen are the Bianco brothers, senior Josh and sophomore Cody, and junior Rudy Ratnavale.

Cirlingione, who had three goals and five assists last season while splitting time between forward and defense, is now a full-time blue-liner.

“Owen has a chance to be the top defenseman in this league,” Leya said. “He has developed tremendously over the past couple of years.”

The top six forwards are Pankowski, Hurst, senior Ethan Varley, junior Adam Dembowski, sophomore Daniel Venture and freshman Sean Sullivan, who “has already pretty much solidified that he belongs at this level,” Leya said.

Leya said the most notable change from last season is the team’s overall confidence. The Talbots struggled in tight games last season; eight of the their 15 losses were by two goals or fewer.

“Last year we had six seniors, and they carried the weight,” Leya said. “Now everybody who has returned has taken on a little bit larger role and that has helped instill confidence in them.”

One example is Frankel, who went 0-5 with a 5.63 goals against average in part-time work last season. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound Frankel is 2-1 with a 5.33 GAA this season and stopped 41 of 45 shots in the win over Armstrong.

“He has the size. He has the stature. He has the build,” Leya said. “Last year he got his feet wet and got the nerves down. This year he came in and knew it was his team to take, and you can just see the confidence.”

And with only three seniors on the 23-man roster, the Talbots should grow even more this season with an eye toward the future.

“The bulk of this year’s team understands everybody is coming back,” Leya said. “I think that adds to the cohesiveness. It’s not just a one-year plan for a lot of these guys.”

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