The Pitt-Johnstown hockey team needed to overcome some long odds to advance to the ACHA Men’s Division III national championship tournament in Coral Springs, Fla. next week.
First, the Icecats rallied from a 2-0 deficit to lead Bryn Athyn 3-2 at the Atlantic Regional Tournament in York.
Then, Bryn Athyn tied the game. Worse yet, UPJ was at a two-man disadvantage late in regulation and into overtime. The Icecats killed off the 5-on-3, and yet again worked through a 4-on-3 Bryn Athyn power play late in OT.
After overcoming all of those obstacles, UPJ put the matter to rest via Troy Schall’s game-winning goal in overtime.
“The first game we won pretty easily (7-3 over Penn State-Altoona), but the second game we went to overtime, short-handed 5-on-3 after the third,” said UPJ junior Derek Grove, a Greater Johnstown High School product. “I didn’t have a lot of really good thoughts going through my head. I never thought we could win it until that goal by Troy Schall in overtime.”
UPJ (28-5-2) will face Florida Gulf Coast, Colorado State and Hope (Michigan) in Pool C at the national event, which runs March 11 through 15.
“The work ethic throughout the whole season ... Our first goal from the first practice was to make it to nationals,” said UPJ senior defenseman Anthony Pioli, a Bishop McCort graduate. “Day-in and day-out at practices everybody showed up with the attitude to get better. That enabled us to have success to lead us to nationals.”
Schall and Eugene Mack lead the Icecats with 86 points apiece. Mack has 42 goals, and Schall, 38. Grove’s 33 goals and 71 points rank third on the team.
Greater Johnstown High graduate Dave Dunkleberger (14-6, 3.45 GAA, .890 save percentage) splits time in net with Tyler Mains (11-1, 4.29, .880). Dunkleberger is a senior goalie.
Forest Hills graduates Justin Hogan, a freshman, and Dustin Wirick, a senior, also are local players with UPJ as well as Johnstown’s Denzell Sullivan and Carrolltown’s Matthew Ramsdell, both freshmen.
“It’s been a great year,” said eighth-year UPJ coach Dave Layman, who is a Richland High graduate. “We’re a very offensive-minded team. We try to outscore our opponents. What made the Atlantic Region championship unique is we started off the overtime facing a 5-on-3. We had to kill off the 5-on-3.”
Layman said there is one more order of business before UPJ heads to the national tournament. The College Hockey East League championship will be decided when UPJ faces California (Pa.) today at the Delmont Ice Center.
Including Mack, Schall, Grove and Bryan Albright, the Icecats have four players with 64 or more points. Each player in that group has at least 28 goals scored.
“We have an offensive-minded defensive crew,” Layman said. “We let them jump in the play and take some risks.”
That means the goaltenders face their share of scoring chances.
“We rely on the goaltenders to make the big saves,” said Layman, himself a former netminder. “The downside to an aggressive system is it does lead to breakaways and odd-man rushes. The goaltenders make a lot of huge saves for us.”
Pioli said the defense has taken on the challenge.
“A couple games ago we had a defensive meeting and our goal was to finish the regular season games and go into the postseason eliminating as many defensive mistakes as possible,” Pioli said. “We wanted to play a real sound fundamental game defensively.”
This will be UPJ’s third trip to the national tournament, and first since 2005.
“To put it into perspective, in the Atlantic Region, there are 52 teams,” Layman said. “There are 212 teams in the nation. We’re down to 16 teams with representatives from Michigan, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Colorado, Arkansas.”
UPJ’s players are eager to enter the national stage.
“No one on the team except for our coach has been to college nationals,” Grove said. “It’s different, but I think winning that game in regionals gave us a lot of confidence in ourselves.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.