Plum’s captains bringing optimism back to ice

Friday, October 4, 2019 | 6:53 PM

Prior to the season, Plum hockey coach Phil Mains told his leadership group of captain Dan Baranowski and alternate captains Logan Schlegel and Nic Pushic that the team would go as they go.

The captains took that message to heart and worked to build a good culture in the locker room to set a good example for younger players.

They planned team dinners and did some side work with teammates away from scheduled practices to create continuity well before the team took the ice.

The early returns show that it has paid off.

Plum had a good showing at the Greensburg Salem preseason tournament, going 2-0-1, and won their regular season opener, 6-3, over Shaler on Tuesday.

For a team that has endured a couple of difficult seasons after winning the Penguins Cup title in 2016-17, optimism has returned.

“The feeling around the team is a lot happier,” Baranowski said. “We’ve added three new players (Tyler Vecchio, Nate McMasters and Connor Hutchison) that bring some character to the team and a lot more fun. We all hang out outside of hockey and that helps with team chemistry. It carries on to the ice. We know each other and know what’s going to happen when we’re out there.”

The Mustangs had wins over Penn-Trafford and Hempfield and tied South Park at the Greensburg Salem tournament.

Vecchio scored two early goals in the third period in the win over Shaler and the team limited the Titans’ chances the rest of the way. The strong defensive period was another sign that the team is heading in the right direction for Mains, who is in his second season at Plum.

The Mustangs have 14 skaters and three goaltenders, which put them at similar numbers to last season, but the energy is much different. Mains credited his captains with a great response to taking the reins as leaders.

“I don’t think this team is any more or less skilled or deeper, but there’s a different feel around the rink when the team is together,” Mains said. “It’s more of a positive and competitive type of vibe. That comes from our leaders for sure. We’ll go as far as Logan, Dan, and Nick (Pushic) take us.

“We basically told them that whatever kind of team you want to have is the kind of team we’ll end up being. The kind of work ethic and attitude they have will rub off on the other guys, because they’re all younger. They’ve been great and have gone above and beyond expectations.”

Plum has six seniors, but two of them are playing hockey for the first time Hutchison is one of the team’s three goalies along with sophomore Sam Pine and junior Joe Miller.

Nate McMasters, the twin brother of Plum forward Nic McMasters, is also in his first season of playing hockey. Nate has been a baseball player at Plum and decided to take up hockey in the spring. He worked all summer and Mains was impressed with how quickly he showed a good grasp for the game.

Nate scored his first goal by slamming home a rebound in the Shaler win. It was a popular goal on the bench.

Vecchio played club hockey the last few years and Baranowski said they had tried to get him to play last year and are happy to have him this season. Along with the two goals against Shaler, he had a hat trick in the final game of the preseason.

“Without Tyler, we’d probably be asking some younger guys to step up and probably playing some musical chairs to find a fit at second-line wing,” Mains said. “To be able to slot him in and have him play the way he has is a big boost for us.”

Plum plays in PIHL Class AA’s Northeast division with Armstrong, Shaler and Hampton. Class AA is made up of 16 teams split into four divisions. The Mustangs are only 1/18th of the way through their schedule and know there’s a long way to go, but if they can stay healthy, they feel they’re capable of returning to the postseason after missing out last year.

“I was talking with Logan Schlegel, who’s my next-door neighbor, and we feel like have a shot to win our division and make a run in the playoffs,” Baranowski said. “That’s a long way away and we really don’t really want to think about that yet, but we feel like we can do it.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer


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