Two years ago, the North Hills hockey program decided to take a one-year hiatus; when the varsity team returned last season, it had a rough start.
The Indians lost their first 10 games last season, getting outscored, 92-21, in the process.
"Last season was the first year the players had played varsity," North Hills coach Brandon Dudt-Mulzet said. "They hadn't done it before and didn't know what to expect. We had to preach a lot of patience."
The patience paid off. Starting with the team's first win on Jan. 9 against Franklin Regional, the Indians finished the regular season winning five of their last 11 games, including two of the final three games to sneak into the last Class AA playoff spot by a point.
The team then took Plum to the wire in the first round of the Penguins Cup, losing, 4-3.
The Indians graduated just six seniors and returned two of their top three scorers. Now with a year of varsity experience under their belts, the Indians have been a different team this season.
"We picked up where we left off last season," Dudt-Mulzet said. "We've continued the progression that we showed last season."
The Indians have won four of their first five games this season, including a 5-3 win against defending Class AA Penguins Cup champion West Allegheny. North Hills lost twice to West Allegheny last season by a combined score of 19-2.
"People kind of chuckled when I said North Hills would be much better this season," West Allegheny coach Timon Veach said. "But they were a much different team at the end of last season than at the beginning."
Sophomore Brett Berner and junior Tyler Heisel have led the offense. Berner, the team's leading scorer last season with 38 points, has a team-best 11 points (seven goals, four assists) through five games. Heisel, the Indians' third-leading scorer last season, has 10 points (four goals, six assists).
"They are both complete players in all three zones on the ice," Dudt-Mulzet said.
Berner and Heisel are two of North Hills' three captains, along with Brian Gapsky. Gapsky is naturally a forward, but has played defense for the Indians the past two seasons and leads the team in blocked shots.
"That shows you a lot of what he's giving up for this team," Dudt-Mulzet said.
Gapsky is one of three defensemen back for the Indians, and one of the newcomers, freshman J.D. Polaski, has been stellar according to Dudt-Mulzet.
The defense is allowing an average of 26 shots per game against goaltenders Alexander Washy and Max Sikorski. Washy was the team's junior varsity goaltender for a handful of games last season, but has stepped in for the graduated Nick Resnick and won three of his four games with an .877 save percentage. Sikorski is 1-0, having stopped 20-of-23 shots in the win against West Allegheny.
In addition to that win, North Hills also defeated 2012 Class AA PIHL semifinalist, Chartiers Valley, last week. Despite the early season success, Dudt-Mulzet isn't thinking too far ahead about how far this team could advance.
"The goal is to get better from the game before," Dudt-Mulzet said. "That philosophy has worked out for me more times than not."
North Hills will take the ice again at 8:30 tonight in a rematch with West Allegheny at the Airport Ice Arena in Moon.