Late-season victories keep Hempfield hockey in playoff hunt

Tuesday, March 1, 2022 | 12:32 PM

In the fall, hockey players at Hempfield and Latrobe high schools can be found playing on the same club teams.

Come time for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League season to begin, they’re obviously on opposite sides.

“During the week, when they’re playing against each other at the high school level, nobody gives anybody a pass,” Hempfield coach Eric Grant said. “Even so, there’s a lot of respect between the players and coaches.”

Both schools were battling with Shaler for the final playoff spot in the PIHL Class 2A East Division as the regular season came down to the wire, and Hempfield helped its cause recently with a hard-fought, 5-4 victory over Latrobe.

The Spartans are trying to make the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season, but Grant said it hasn’t been any easy year.

“We’ve had a mentality to compete really, really hard,” he said. “We’re just trying to knock each other off.”

Hempfield was outclassed in its next game, losing to division-leading Franklin Regional, 12-1, in what amounted to the Spartans’ worst showing of the season. They opened the year with a respectable effort, losing 6-3 to the powerful Panthers.

Still, Grant hasn’t lost any sleep over that latest outcome.

“I couldn’t be prouder of these kids, regardless of our record,” he said.

Hempfield has played much of the year without two injured regulars — Ian Shaw and Cam Laverde — but the Spartans were still in the playoff hunt at the beginning of the week.

They defeated Armstrong, 6-3, on Monday at Nevin Arena and finish the season Feb. 28 against Montour at RMU Island Sports Center.

“We’ve got superb leadership,” Grant said. “Aiden Dunlap, our captain, who is going on to play baseball at Youngstown State, has been a remarkable leader. Our alternate captains Zach Ridilla and Tristan Lloyd have followed suit. Those guys lead the way. We’re not a selfish team. In fact, we’re one of the best-passing teams in the PIHL. We’re good at moving the puck north and south, east and west.”

Grant, in his third season as head coach at Hempfield, is excited for the future of the program. He credits athletic director Brandon Rapp for stirring interest from top to bottom since Rapp’s arrival from Norwin in 2020.

The school district supports four levels — novice, middle school, junior varsity and varsity.

“Since Brandon Rapp became the AD, we’re enjoying a lot of support at the school,” said Grant, who previously was working with younger players in the district before being elevated to head coach in 2019. “I’ve got to give the school board a lot of credit.”

During a recent “Senior Night,” Rapp was joined in attendance by school board President Dr. Tony Bompiani and several other board members.

“We’ve never had that before,” Grant said. “It was quite a vote of confidence.”

Grant also tipped his cap to former Hempfield coach Dennis Zeravica, currently an assistant at Norwin, where he previously also served as head coach.

“He helped to get this program going,” said Grant, who succeeded Zeravica on the Hempfield bench. “He was very instrumental when I was at the JV level, helping to build the program from the bottom-up.”

Grant added, “From novice all the way up, we’ve developed the program, where coaches meet at all levels. There’s been zero egos in the coaching ranks, and that comes through to the kids. Where the kids see us, as coaches, aren’t puffing our chests and aren’t ego-driven, it’s a better atmosphere.”

Heading into Monday’s home game against Armstrong, Hempfield boasted a balanced scoring attack, led by Dunlap’s 14 goals and 15 assists.

Nick Bruno had added 13 goals and 12 assists, Ridilla 7 goals and 18 assists, Damion Busch 11 goals and 11 assists, Logan Eisaman 7 goals and 13 assists and Max Short 6 goals and 6 assists.

The goaltending duties have been split between Chase Sankey (81.8 save percentage) and Zack Francisco (77.9).

“They’ve improved as time’s gone on,” Grant said. “We have two goaltenders who are new this year and haven’t seen the level of shooting that exists in our league.”

Grant said he’d hoped that moving Lloyd to defense from his previous center position could aid in the development of both goalies, but Lloyd has battled a nagging injury that has limited his time on the ice.

“Aiden had never played any real defense before,” Grant said. “But he has such a high hockey IQ. He’s a great kid. He was hurt, came back and got hurt again. But he’s good now. He’s had a tough senior year. But he’s indicative of the good leadership on this team.”


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