By Matthew Digiacomo
Over the years, the Meadville Bulldogs/CCYHA Midget Flames have afforded head coach Jamie Plunkett many memories. On Saturday, the team gave him another as it beat the Arctic Foxes 6-3, handing the head coach the 900th victory of his career.
“To do something this long, you really have to enjoy it,” said Plunkett. “It is going to end at some point, and then you can look back and reflect. But for now, we practice Sunday and play (today).”
In his 27th season at the helm, Plunkett has plenty to look back on.
There are the obvious memories. Eight PIHL state championships, the first coming in 1986-87 in Class AA. Two years later, the Bulldogs won their first Class AAA title. Then, in 1991-92 the team won the first of five straight titles.
The last state championship came in 2002-03, which also marked the only year the team won its own invitational. The Bulldogs made it to the final two other times before the 2002-03 season, losing both times. The ’Dogs won 3-2 in double overtime against St. Ignatius, which has the most Bulldog Invitational titles with seven.
“We won our own tournament and ended the regular season playing poorly. I had a rotten feeling going into the playoffs, but something just clicked,” Plunkett said.
“We knew we had talented kids, but went through a bad stretch. But every team is different in its own way.”
Other games Plunkett recalled include a game against Team Pittsburgh on April 1, 1989 in which Meadville won 6-5 as time expired. The contest may not have happened at all if it did not take the east two weeks to get ready for the state championship game. Earlier that season in December, the team beat East Kenwood in double overtime in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“That was a special year for those kids,” said Plunkett.
Plunkett also recalled trying for years to break into Buffalo to play the best teams. In 1994, the hard work paid off when Buffalo St. Fancis traveled to Meadville. St. Francis beat the Bulldogs up pretty good the first night, but Meadville came right back and pitched a shutout the next day.
Rivalries created against the likes of Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Cleveland’s St. Edward also remain high on Plunkett’s list.
Other memories also rank high.
The players, for instance. Plunkett has coached some greats over the years. Perhaps that is why, while addressing the team after win No. 900, he thanked his current players before becoming a little choked up. Asked if he could recall all the greats, the coach politely declined.
“I would hate to even try,” said Plunkett. “We have had so many talented players, I would hate to leave any kid out. Plus, with a team each kid has a different role. What they do might not show up on the stat sheets, but the team knows how important it is.”
The head coach did remember a group he had to mention, his assistants.
Currently the guys that help on the bench are Dick Holabaugh, Scott Phyllis and Kevin Petrarca. Over the years, that group of assistants included Joe Caretti, Denny Erickson, Doug Hanaway, Jim McCarney, Gabe Amato, Ben Corey, Bill Dross Jr., Shawn Fitzsimmons, Dr. Lawrence Newhook and Dave Stockton.
“Joe was actually my first assistant,” said Plunkett. “And Dick has been with me since the early 90s. Many of the other guys had played for me.
“Its funny, there are now guys involved with the Crawford County Youth Hockey Association that I coached and they are coaching their kids. That is where it all starts, with the community and CCYHA. And both have been behind me and the kids since I started this.”
The amazing thing is that Plunkett has been able to win consistently in a constantly changing arena.
“It is more difficult to pick up wins than it was in the 90s,” said Plunkett. “And winning in the Pittsburgh Amatuer Hockey League is tough. The Pittsburgh teams have gotten better.
“But I like where the program is. We lose four quality seniors, but have a really good freshman class. So I am excited.”
Maybe just excited enough to go for 1,000 wins.