It’s going to be a season of changes for the Meadville hockey team, a season that begins today when the Bulldogs hit the road to face Game 1 opponent Quaker Valley.
Last season, Meadville finished with a record of 28-15-2, a 15-3-0 mark in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s Class A division, and a playoff run that came to a end in the Penguins Cup quarterfinals with a 4-1 loss to Thomas Jefferson.
The Bulldogs will, naturally, try to improve on each one of those marks this season. But they will be doing so against a fairly new group of league rivals.
The Bulldogs have been moved up from the PIHL’s Varsity Class A — where they competed during the previous two seasons — to Varsity Class AA.
Meadville was eligible to move up to Class AA due to the size of the program’s home school, as well as the success of the program in Class A over the last couple years.
“I think it was always our plan when we left the Open Division (after the 2016-17 season),” said Plunkett. “As a coaching staff, I think our goal was always to work back to Class AA. We are looking forward to it. And we know it is going to be a huge challenge.”
With the move in classification, Meadville has been placed in the Northwest Division, one of four, four-team divisions in Class AA.
Teams play their division opponents twice each season, and the other Class AA teams once each season.
Sharing the galaxy-themed Northwest Division with Meadville is Mars, Moon and tonight’s opponent, Quaker Valley.
“We get started against Quaker Valley. I don’t think we’ve ever played them,” said Plunkett. “They have a great coach, Kevin Quinn. The program has enjoyed some success the past few years. And I think they won a couple Class A state title before moving up to Class AA themselves.”
It will be a tough home opener for the storied program’s 40th season.
Yes, it has been that long since the Crawford County Cobras took over the rink for the first time in 1979. A lot of things have changed over the years — even Plunkett did not come to the program until the 1986-87 season — but many things have stayed the same. One has been a history of success.
The Bulldogs are proud owners of eight PIHL state titles. The first came in Plunkett’s rookie season of 1987 and the last in 2003. In between, the Bulldogs won six other crowns, including five straight from 1992 to ‘96.
How does the team plan to celebrate the milestone season?
“To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it,” said Plunkett. “We have had a hectic few weeks with the French Creek clean-up, our fitness tests, preseason games and our golf outing. So maybe we can start to look at 40 years and 40 teams, some of the players that have come through he program and some of the things the program has accomplished.
“Perhaps we can put that theme with our alumni game and try to get as many guys back as possible.”
Until that point, Plunkett will be focused 100 percent on the 2019-20 season and the questions it holds.
Yes, the Bulldogs have entered plenty of seasons with question marks. But they may never have had to face so many as they do this time around. And the questions are huge heading into the opener.
First and foremost is offense. The Bulldogs graduated a lot of production last season.
There was the graduation of all-time leading goal scorer Nick Frantz, who record 94 goals and had 53 assists last year. The Bulldogs also lost Brendan Leech (20 goals, 38 assist) and Axel Jager (6, 37). That is a total of 120 goals and 128 assists (248 points) — or 46 percent of the team’s total goals (262 total), 39 percent of its assists (326) and 42 percent of its points (588).
“The biggest challenge this year is trying to replace a lot of points,” said Plunkett. “Obviously Nick Frantz was huge. But with Brendan Leech and Axel Jager gone too, a lot of points graduated. “
On the plus side, Meadville does bring back Cohl Weber. He was second on the team in points last season with 91, scoring 46 goals while adding 45 assists.
Michael Mahoney has looked solid early as well. Plunkett is looking for others like Ryan Scheppelmann (27 goals, 17 assists), John Grasinger (3, 11), Kyle Hanaway (3, 3) and Matt English (7, 16). Other youngsters that could impact the front line are juniors Christopher Cox (1, 1) and Andrew Derlink (7, 17); sophomores Nick Kaste (1, 4), Adam Travis and Brandon Corey; and freshmen Trevor Kessler and Sam Engels.
“Cohl Weber is our top returning scorer from last year, but after him there is quite a drop off,” said Plunkett. “I am guessing a lot of teams are going to focus on him, so we are going to have to score by committee and play much better defense.”
But that defense has questions as well.
Meadville will look to a unit of five defensemen consisting of three juniors and two freshmen. Alex Ott (3 goals, 18assists), Parker Higham (2, 4) and Cody Lewis (9, 8) have some experience and will be counted on to anchor the unit. But they can’t do it alone, and freshmen Jonathan English and Ethan Konetsky will have to relieve some of that pressure. The talent is there, but repetition is lacking.
“It kind of reminds me of the defensive class we had a few years ago,” said Plunkett. “We had some growing pains then. But we are working with this group and trying to get a little better each week.”
There is one spot Plunkett is confident in — goalie.
With the graduation of starter Eddie Kaufman(14-10-1, .894 SV%), that may come as a bit of a surprise. But through the first four exhibition games, the play in net has been very good. So good, in fact, that Plunkett hasn’t decided who his ace will be.
“Out goaltending is going to be solid,” said Plunkett. “Sam Coppola, a freshman, and junior Jordan McCurdy (13-6-1, .901 SV% last year) … I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen from both kids to this point. Hopefully they continue to push each other. I plan to use them alternate games and give them both opportunities to play. If we have to make some decision down the road, we’ll deal with it at that time.”
So while Plunkett may not have all the answers yet, history shows he usually does when it counts.