East Xtra: Hempfield is Open to change on the ice

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Last season, Hempfield Area's hockey team only won two of its 20 games.

With just three games played so far this season, the Spartans already have matched that total.

Hempfield won its first two games by a combined score of 23-0 before falling to Baldwin, 4-3, last Thursday.

"I'm very happy with how we're playing," said Hempfield's second-year coach, Denny Zeravica. "We're playing great as a team, from top to bottom."

Some of the improvement can be attributed to a change in classification. After winning a total of six games the past two seasons in Class AAA, Hempfield decided to drop to the Open Classification this season.

It may have been shrewd, considering the Spartans lost a large senior class as well as two underclassmen -- Channing Gorshak and Andrew Koziara -- who were the Spartans' top two scorers last season. Hempfield entered the season with only 12 skaters.

Zeravica said the returning players were split on their feelings about the move and in the preseason, the team showed it could still play with the Class AAA teams, beating Norwin and hanging tough with Penn-Trafford.

But in the Open Class, teams are having a hard time staying with Hempfield. The Spartans opened with a 7-0 victory against Keystone Oaks, then throttled Connellsville, 16-0.

The Spartans also led the Highlanders, 1-0, heading into the third period before allowing four tallies in the final period.

"In nine periods this season, we've only given up a goal in one," Zeravica said. "We've done a great job defensively."

In his first year as a starter at the varsity level, sophomore goaltender Garrett Ciaramella has been fantastic, with a 1.58 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in his first three starts.

The netminder also keeps things loose.

"He's been great, not just on the ice, but also his demeanor," Zeravica said. "During practice, he's just such a calming force. He's always joking around making people laugh. But he's also a competitor. He's proving to be one of the best goaltenders in the Open Class.

Seniors Billy Hayden and Zach Iezzi have been the key players in front of Ciaramella on the blue line. But Zeravica also gave credit to his two centers, senior Avery Lavella and junior Conor Cortazzo, for their two-way play. Lavella and Cortazzo are the team's top two scorers with nine and eight points, respectively.

Tied with Cortazzo with eight points is the team's captain, senior Mike Donofrio. Donofrio was a defenseman during the 2012-13 season, but is now playing on the wing and has already eclipsed the six points he scored all of last season.

"He'll play anywhere we want him to play," Zeravica said. "He's not boisterous, but he's a leader by his actions on and off the ice. He's a huge asset to have for the younger guys."

Zeravica wants to send Donofrio and the rest of the seniors out with a title.

"I have real high hopes for this team," Zeravica said. "I think we have the talent to be one of better teams in the league and to go far.

"Hopefully, we can put it all together and have these seniors go out with a bang."


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