New-look Burrell hockey team finds stability

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Sunday, December 29, 2019 | 4:51 PM


Entering the season, perhaps no team in the PIHL lost more key pieces than Burrell.

Gone were players such as dynamic forward Tyler Stewart, who led the PIHL in scoring two years in a row, stalwart defensemen Bryce Schueler and goaltender Andrew Burkett. They led the Bucs to two consecutive Division II championship appearances.

What remained was a roster full of young but promising players for first-year coach Fred Neal. The Bucs (3-7) have gone through through ups and downs but find themselves in the midst of the playoff race entering the new year in Class B.

“We lost a lot of the guys that carried the team the last couple years,” Neal said. “There are still some guys here that were contributors last year, but we took a big hit. We have a lot of younger guys that really have to carry the load this year.”

Burrell is third in Class B’s North Division, two points ahead of Wilmington and Central Valley. The top four teams in each division make the playoffs.

Neal took over for Max Rickard, who now is coaching the Pittsburgh Iceman Under-18 travel team with former Burrell assistant Cody Brightbill.

Neal inherited a team that has 10 sophomores, three juniors, two seniors and a freshman. One of the seniors, Gio Palombo has missed all but three games because of injury. He was a standout last season alongside Stewart on the top line. Palombo moved to defense this season out of necessity and has seven goals in three games.

Neal expects Palombo to be available for the stretch run.

“He’s certainly a difference-maker when he’s in there,” Neal said. “He scored five goals for us in a game this year. You love having a kid like that in the lineup. He can cover the entire ice effortlessly. It’s really fun to watch him play.”

Sophomores Jonas Sopko (16 points) and Logan Schoepf (15) lead the team in scoring. Sopko has eight goals, Schoepf has seven and classmate Anthony George six.

Burrell has played every game with a short bench, with a dozen skaters being the most they’ve dressed all season (plus two goalies).

The Bucs only have two full-time defensemen: freshman Isaac Sopko and sophomore Nathan Schultz. Captain Cole Vassana, a senior, and Schoepf are converted forwards asked to play defense along with Palombo when he’s healthy.

Burrell has yielded 6.5 goals per game, which is the second most in Class B. Neal is hopeful they can cut that total down the stretch.

“The kids are doing a great job and working super hard, but it is tough because we have guys that we’d rather have on offense that we need to play back,” Neal said. “They’re stepping into that role and doing what they need to do for the team.”

Burrell will have an opportunity to determine its own playoff fate. The three teams below the Bucs in the standings — McDowell, Central Valley and Wilmington — are on the schedule. They play McDowell twice. Burrell beat Wilmington, 9-5, in the first meeting Nov. 18 and dropped a wild 11-9 game to Central Valley on Oct. 10.

The goals for the rest of the season are continuing to develop the underclassmen and finding a way to get into the playoffs and advance past the first round.

“We’re looking at our schedule and seeing an opportunity to gain some points,” Neal said. “The hardest part of our schedule is definitely over. The South Division is much tougher than the North this year, and we’ve gotten through most of those teams. We have Carrick left, which will be a tough game, and Avonworth, which has been in a lot of games this year, but we feel like we can play with them if we have everyone available.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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