North Xtra: Rams dealing with step to AAA hockey

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Pine-Richland had a lot of uncertainty entering this season.

The Rams had to replace third- and fourth-leading scorers in PIHL Class AA, Zach Richey and Dillon Kessy, as well as goaltender Brendan Bagnato, who was second in wins and third in goals-against average in the class last season.

Additionally, Pine-Richland moved up to Class AAA this season.

But none of that has hurt the 2013 PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup runner-up, which has beaten Norwin and Penn-Trafford and lost to defending Penguins Cup and state champion North Allegheny and perennial AAA contender Central Catholic in its first four games this season.

"I think we've done very well so far, starting in the preseason and then through the first two games [victories against Norwin and Penn-Trafford]," Pine-Richland coach Mike Bagnato said.

The Rams' offense has been solid in the early going despite the losses of Richey and Kessy, who combined to compile 109 points last season.

Ryan Cole, the team's third-leading scorer with 34 points last season, returned for his senior season and has four goals and three assists through four games.

Although Cole was expected to be one of the team's "go-to" players on offense, Nick Matelan has been a surprise. A senior, he was one of the final cuts from the varsity program as a sophomore, then didn't play last season. But through four games this fall, he has scored six goals, including a hat trick against Norwin, along with three assists.

"He's done a really great job," Bagnato said. "He had an incredible [first] week with five goals in two games."

While not a forward, senior Kyle Cunningham adds a lot of scoring punch from the blue line. A PIHL all-star defender last season, he had 21 points last season and already has a goal and three assists this season.

Cunningham is paired with veteran defenseman Chad Rarig, whose steady play allows Cunningham to jump into the offensive zone.

"Chad's a big, tall, lanky defenseman," Bagnato said. "It's his second year starting on the varsity and when Kyle goes up in the rush, Chad stays home [on defense]."

The Rams have used two goaltenders to try and replace Brendan Bagnato -- junior Isaac Stephen and freshman Ben Stauffer. The two have combined to stop 75 of 91 shots to help the Rams start 2-2.

The difference this year is that there are no cakewalks in Class AAA. Just three weeks into the season, there are no undefeated teams in Class AAA.

"Anybody can beat anybody on any given night and I think that parody is the difference [between Class AAA and Class AA]," Bagnato said.

"I think the top teams in Class AA -- like Latrobe and Bishop Canevin -- are just as good as the top teams in Class AAA. It's just the depth issue. If you're not ready to play every night in Class AAA, it's going to hurt you."

The move up in classification and the key graduation attrition hasn't affected the Rams goals.

With four players -- Cole, Cunningham, Andrew Vislosky and Nick Jenkins -- back for their fourth seasons on the varsity squad and four other players in their third year on the varsity, the Rams have aspirations of returning to the Penguins Cup final for a second consecutive year.

"Our expectations are the same -- to get to Consol," Bagnato said. "We know for us to do that, we have to play as a team and work together for 20 games."

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