With its varsity team struggling for multiple consecutive seasons, and just two seniors on the roster, the Deer Lakes High School Hockey Board of Directors made a decision prior to the 2011-12 season.
The varsity hockey team took a one-year hiatus, and the program fielded junior varsity and freshman squads only to help focus on development.
"The decision was made by vote by all the board members," Deer Lakes hockey association president Art Theys said. "We wanted to develop further at the junior varsity level. We thought the emphasis should be on development. So far it seems as though it has worked."
In the five seasons before 2011-12, the Lancers averaged fewer than three wins per season. In its return to varsity hockey this season, the Lancers scored 23 goals in their first three games, going 2-0-1.
Not only were the Deer Lakes players able to develop their skills and learn the system last season, but they also experienced a vast amount of success. The Lancers' freshman team went undefeated on its way to a PIHL title, while the junior varsity team lost just four of its 18 regular-season games.
"It was 100 percent the right decision to play down," said Deer Lakes varsity hockey coach Todd Luniewski, who coached the freshman team last season during the one-year hiatus. "It allowed us to do many things. The kids had an extra second to think on the ice, and when you get that extra second, you can develop your skills and develop the system."
Luniewski is familiar with the abilities of many of his younger players, and not just from coaching the ninth-grade team last season. Luniewski has been coaching many of the players on the roster, such as Mitchel Rupprecht, Vincent Casale, Doug Francioni and his son, Zach Luniewski, since they were 5- or 6-year-olds.
It's those players who sat atop the Deer Lakes' scoring leaderboard after three games, with Rupprecht and Zach Luniewski sharing the lead way with eight points each. Rupprecht has five goals and Luniewski four.
"I've coached some of these boys since they were 5," Luniewski said. "It's a great class of boys.
"They are very disciplined."
Although the young players are excelling, the sacrifice and leadership of the team's senior captain has been just as important.
Lucas Gapsky has played defense throughout his ice hockey career. But when Deer Lakes found itself without a goaltender at the start of the season due to an injury, Gapsky volunteered to play between the pipes.
The only time Gapsky had ever played goaltender prior to this season was in roller hockey.
"Lucas volunteered and honestly, we knew he was our best option," Todd Luniewski said. "He is doing a phenomenal job."
Gapsky earned his first win in the season opener, stopping 13-of-14 shots against Greensburg Central. He then stopped 22-of-28 shots in Deer Lakes' tie against South Fayette, a playoff team last season.
The Lancers have yet to play the top teams in Class A, including the favorite in its section, Kittanning. Todd Luniewski said the team won't be judged by its record, but by its improvement this season.
"My expectations are to be competitive with anyone we face," Luniewski said. "I know we still have all our toughest games to play and we'll see how many wins we can get. But I'm not going to measure our season by wins and losses, but by the development of our players."
First Published November 15, 2012 5:00 AM