Plum grad excited to take over alma mater’s hockey program

By:
Friday, August 4, 2023 | 6:55 PM


Jon Gratton’s first foray into ice hockey coaching came three seasons ago when the 2009 Plum graduate accepted a varsity assistant coaching position on college teammate Cam Raidna’s staff at Fox Chapel.

“I can’t say right off the bat that coaching was a goal of mine,” said Gratton, a four-year varsity player with the Mustangs who also played junior hockey with the Pittsburgh Junior Penguins and skated for teams in New York and Minnesota before attending Slippery Rock.

“Once I got done playing, I thought maybe a break was needed. I did the Ice Crew with the Penguins for a little bit, but that just didn’t scratch the itch for me. Cam gave me a call and thought I would be someone who could help the offense because they were struggling to score goals at the time. I took the leap, and I fell in love with (coaching). There was really no turning back. I’ve been all over the place as a player, and it’s nice to now see the game from a different perspective.”

Gratton helped Fox Chapel win 20 games last season and reach the finals of the Penguins Cup Class A playoffs. The Foxes averaged nearly seven goals a game.

He now hopes to bring that same level of success to his new position as head coach of his alma mater.

Gratton said he’s is excited to return to Plum hockey and give back to a program that gave him so much as a player more than a decade ago.

“It was a pretty easy decision for me to want to come to Plum,” he said. “Plum gave me a ton of great memories. I got the chance to play juniors and college hockey, and those opportunities were terrific. But there is just something about representing your school and your peers, playing with your classmates and putting on that jersey. There is something special about it, no matter what level, from single-A to triple-A. It’s even more special to be able to go back and hopefully build the program back up.”

Gratton takes over for Phil Mains, a Plum graduate who served as Mustangs coach for five seasons after a standout playing career that included time with Pitt’s top-level team.

The Plum Hockey Board decided in March to open the coaching position and go in a different direction.

The decision didn’t sit well with some players, parents and alumni.

The board held a meeting at Pittsburgh Ice a short time after to discuss the situation. The well-attended meeting brought thoughts from both sides together, but in the end the board maintained its position and the coaching position remained vacant.

Gratton said the team is coming together well in preparation for the preseason, which will include several scrimmages next month as well as possible play in the well established St. Margaret or Greensburg Central Catholic Tournaments.

Plum finished last season 3-14-0-3.

Despite losing leading goal scorer Zach Miller (13 goals) to graduation, six of the top eight point producers are back. That includes junior Luca Lapiana, who was second on the team with eight goals.

“We’re already in the thick of it with off-ice training for about a month and a half,” Gratton said. “We’ve sprinkled in a few on-ice things here and there. That process is already rolling.

“It’s still a young team, but we have a nice core group back that understands high school hockey and what the physicality is like at this level. There also is a nice group of freshmen who bring so much skill and talent. For them to jump in the water like they have, it’s exciting to look at their future with the team.”

Fox Chapel and Plum played twice last year with the Foxes winning both games.

If Gratton is to see his former Fox Chapel players on the ice this year, it will come in the preseason as the Foxes are now in Class 2A. Plum remains in Class A and will face Avonworth, Beaver, Blackhawk, Chartiers Valley, Moon, Wheeling Park, Freeport, Hampton, Westmont Hilltop, Wheeling Catholic and Richland.

Gratton said he’s excited to work with former Plum teammates Cody Brenner and Corey Laboon on the varsity staff.

“As far as the hockey chops go, they both have got it,” Gratton said. “Their resumes speak for themselves. This is their first coaching stint, but I’ve known these two my whole life, and I have complete trust and faith in them. They understand who I am, what I’m about and the message we’re trying to get across to the players. To start your coaching career at your high school, I am really excited for them.”

Laboon, who played two seasons at Cal (Pa.) and AAA hockey for the Viper Stars, also graduated from Plum in 2009, while Brenner is a 2010 Plum grad.

“It is an absolute honor to come back and represent Plum hockey again,” said Brenner, who played club hockey at Robert Morris.

“I always felt Plum was a storied organization in Western PA high school hockey, and with this coaching staff of some of the best teammates I’ve ever had, I believe that we can bring success to Plum hockey this year and in years to come.”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

Tags:

More High School Hockey

Ron Steedle, cornerstone of Shaler hockey community, dies at age 69
2-time PIHL girls division goals leader Madyson Kirsch of Freeport has busy summer ahead
PIHL girls division’s 3rd season highlighted by more teams, close games
Upper St. Clair classmates provide heroics in 3rd PIHL girls championship game
New coach plans to carry on ‘winning mentality’ with Franklin Regional hockey