Hempfield hockey team looks to add finishing touches

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Monday, October 18, 2021 | 11:56 AM


Eric Grant knows all about a hard-working mentality. He learned it growing up on a dairy farm in upstate New York.

Now, the third-year Hempfield hockey coach hopes that mindset continues to blossom within his promising program.

But to continue the strong route that Hempfield is on, it will need to buck some bad trends from late in the 2020-21 season.

“We’d start quick and then we’d take our foot off the gas,” Grant said.

Last season’s results tell that tale. Hempfield won 12 of its first 13 games but went winless in its last six. The Spartans scored only two goals in their final five regular-season games and then lost 4-3 in overtime to eventual runner-up Franklin Regional in the Class 2A quarterfinals.

Grant attributes the struggles to a lack of quality scoring chances, and that’s something he and his coaching staff have focused on heading into a new season.

“Our mentality was not necessarily to get away from our strength of passing and moving the puck, but our mentality is more around instead of worrying about the quantity of shots that we look toward the quality of shots,” he said. “And you just change your drills and adjust your drill mindset to focus on things that create scoring chances and possession in the middle of the ice.”

Hempfield scored early on last season, racking up 4.67 goals per game. It also defended well, posting the third-best goals-against number in Class 2A.

“It was the speed and strength of our defensive corps and our defensive mindset. We play from the net out,” Grant said. “We were really strong on the breakout and really fast on it. We didn’t allow for a lot of in-zone possession. … It was a five-person defensive effort.”

But defense can go only so far. The goalie has to be strong. And, despite losing goalies Matt Overdorf and Paul Oliver to graduation, Grant feels a big strength of the team could be in net with Zach Francisco and Chase Sankey.

“Zach brings a lot of experience,” Grant said. “He’s played A-Major and AA (club hockey) in the past, so he has experience there. He’s a good, strong goaltender and has grown quite a bit. Chase has played roller (hockey) for a number of years, and it’s just his second year playing on ice. But, to be honest, he’s probably one of the fastest-developing goaltenders I’ve ever seen.”

The Spartans welcome back their top three point scorers from 2020-21: Nick Bruno (14 goals, 14 assists), Aiden Dunlap (15 goals, 6 assists) and Zach Ridilla (8 goals, 13 assists).

“Bruno and Dunlap, they’re a year further into this and have matured another year,” Grant said. “They know how to talk to their teammates and linemates and speed up communication for them. And Ridilla, he’s a big, strong body. He’s not afraid to be physical and really does focus on stick-on-puck and puck-to-net.

“We have a good supporting cast for those guys and a lot of strength coming up from last year. Some JV players have turned the corner and are really starting to progress. It’s just going to be a ‘build upon build upon build,’ like any good program would have.”

Grant, who has put an emphasis on growing Hempfield’s youth programs, will have to lead his team through a rigorous Class 2A schedule. In its division, Hemfield will face Franklin Regional, as well as perennially strong programs Latrobe, Armstrong and reigning Class A champion Indiana, which moved up for 2021-22.

“It’s exciting. There’s no throw-in-the-towel games,” Grant said. “Everybody has to be ready for everybody every night. It’s a top-to-bottom division.”

“But I don’t think myself, my assistant coaches, and even my team would be excited if we weren’t playing in a competitive group. We relish the opportunity.”

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