East Xtra: Coach rebuilding Hempfield hockey team

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After coaching Norwin for five seasons, Dennis Zeravica stepped down prior to last season so he could coach his younger kids hockey teams.

But his kids happened to play at the same rink as the one used by Hempfield's high school team. So he knew something about the Spartans.

So when the job became open, Hempfield freshman coach Chuck Plyler asked Zeravica if he was interested.

"I love the game," Zeravica said. "I knew it would be a challenge because Hempfield hadn't done well recently, but it was the same at Norwin when I got there."

Zeravica was selected over eight other candidates and took over the Spartans, who were 4-18 last season.

Joining Zeravica on the coaching staff was his younger brother, Justin. The duo grew up playing together, then coached together at Penn State West and Norwin.

The elder Zeravica said it has been "fantastic" coaching with his sibling.

"We know what each other is thinking," he said. "We both are the same type of person. We are going to do whatever it takes to win. We hate to lose."

To try to stop the losing at Hempfield, Zeravica instituted intense dryland conditioning, starting in July.

This was a bigger focus because Hempfield does not have a deep squad. One of the reasons is that not every hockey player in the Hempfield area is playing for the high school team.

"We want [every hockey player] who goes to Hempfield to play for the school," Zeravica said. "That would help us tremendously in the long term. It would help us build the varsity program."

The Spartans do have some good young talent on the roster.

Sophomore Channing Gorscak "has been fantastic for us," Zeravica said. Gorscak leads the team with 14 points (six goals, eight assists). Freshman Andrew Koziara is right behind Gorscak in points with 10.

Defensively, junior Mike Donofrio only has two points, but has been the team's workhorse on the blue line.

"It doesn't show in his point totals, but he does so much for us," Zeravica said. "Not only in games, but off the ice and in practice. He is a great kid who does everything.

"He plays over half the game for us. He not only goes against the other team's top line, but usually their second line, too. He double shifts for us."

With a 1-8-1 record, Hempfield's results haven't been great this season. But with the younger team getting more experience, the Spartans have improved as the season has progressed.

After losing by six or more goals three times in the first five games, Hempfield has only lost by more than three goals once in the past five contests. The team also got its first win during that span, a 6-2 victory against McDowell.

"We're definitely playing better right now," Donofrio said. "We got our lines straightened out and tightened up the defense."

Donofrio said his hopes this season are to sneak into the playoffs. But long term, Zeravica has much higher goals.

"Our goal is to be a contending for a division title and earn a great seed in the playoffs in the near future," Zeravica said.

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