North Xtra: Climb continues for Pine-Richland hockey

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In 2010, Mike Bagnato took over as coach of the Pine-Richland High School hockey program, just two years after the Rams won their third consecutive Penguins Cup title.

Year-by-year since then, the Rams have gotten closer to returning to that level of excellence.

After reaching the Penguins Cup quarterfinals and semifinals in 2011 and '12, respectively, Pine-Richland went 16-5-1 this season and reached the Penguins Cup title game for the first time since 2008.

"You can see the progression we've made," said senior goaltender Brendan Bagnato, who is Mike's son. "We're building the program again."

The Rams have done it with the help of many former players. Ryan Tessmer, Max Malone, Brian Miller and Albert Yoklic all played for the Rams in the 2000s and are now instilling the Rams' way into the younger players on Pine-Richland's two junior varsity teams.

"They've all played and been in the program," Mike Bagnato said. "We all are running the same systems and communicating the same things to the kids. It makes it easier because when the kids move from the junior varsity to the varsity, they don't have to learn a new system."

That has helped the Rams build plenty of depth throughout Bagnato's short tenure.

A young Rams squad went 9-10-1 and lost in the PIHL Class AA quarterfinals in Bagnato's first season.

Then in 2011-12, the Rams finished 12-10-2 and advanced to the PIHL Class AA semifinals.

With much of the same nucleus returning this season, and a depth provided by the junior varsity program that allowed the team to run four lines, the Rams won the Class AA Section 4 title and earned the No. 4 seed in the Class AA Penguins Cup playoffs.

After winning its quarterfinal matchup against Cathedral Prep of Erie, Pine-Richland faced top-seeded Bishop Canevin in the semifinals.

The Crusaders led, 1-0 and 2-1, but the Rams tied it at 2 on a goal by freshman Matt Cole in the third period to send the game into overtime.

Then in the extra session, Pine-Richland senior Dillon Kessy played the role of hero with a goal that sent the Rams to Consol Energy Center.

"We played a great game and to come back twice, it's definitely one of my favorite games I've played in as a hockey player," Brendan Bagnato said.

The Rams season didn't end as they had hoped, as Latrobe beat the Rams in the Penguins Cup final, 5-0, on March 20.

But they were able to recapture the excitement of the community.

"What we've done means a lot," Mike Bagnato said. "We had great crowds for the semifinals and finals. Hockey is a sport kids like to go watch, especially when you're winning.

"I also got a lot of emails and texts from alumni. My two older sons both played for the state championship teams, so a lot of those guys have my number and have been really supportive."

The Rams must replace many key players, such as Kessy, Zach Richey and Brendan Bagnato, all graduating seniors.

One person they won't be losing is Mike Bagnato. Despite the fact that his son and Richey, both of whom he has coached since they were in elementary school, will be departing, the Rams head coach says he's going to continue to build the Rams' program next season.

"I am not going anywhere in the immediate future," Bagnato said. "I'm attached to this group coming back with [Kyle] Cunningham, [Nick] Jenkins, [Ethan] Pitts, [Nick] Carnovale and others. They are getting better and better."

Just like the Rams have each season under Bagnato.

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