Greater Latrobe had to replace Post-Gazette Player of the Year Shane Brudnok, as well as all-stars Josh Singley and Robert Vasinko, from last season's state championship team, but the return of the rest of the 2012-13 squad made the Wildcats one of the Penguins Cup favorites entering this season.
After back-to-back losses to Bishop Canevin and Armstrong in November by the combined score of 22-9, however, changes needed to be made if Latrobe wanted to be considered among the league's elite.
"It was definitely a learning experience," senior captain Chris Johnson said. "We got down in both games early and didn't have what it takes to come back."
So Latrobe coach John Winebrenner held a team meeting following the Armstrong game to address the problems the team was having defensively this season.
It had to be expected Latrobe (5-4) would allow more goals this season with the loss of goaltender Brudnok, who was a four-year starter, three-time all-star and two-time state champion. He led Class AA in wins (19), save percentage (.927) and goals-against average (1.55) last season.
Tim Ruppen has been charged with the difficult task of replacing Brudnok, and his play has been a bit inconsistent.
"Tim has had some difficulties, but he's come back and learned from his mistakes," Winebrenner said.
The other issue was that last season Latrobe used a system where its forwards backchecked heavily, with Singley as the leader.
But without Singley this season, the Wildcats haven't been as aggressive with the backcheck, which has left the defense susceptible and forced Ruppen, or backup Ryan Pal, to face too many shots on goal.
In the losses to Bishop Canevin and Armstrong, the Wildcats were outshot by a combined 80-44.
"We've had to make some system changes," Winebrenner said. "The backchecking system we were using was having problems because of personnel. Losing Singley really hurt."
Johnson said the forwards are now making a more conscientious effort to get back into the defensive zone to help out.
"Our offense is one of the best in the league," Johnson said. "A lot of guys can put the puck in the net. We expect to score at least four or five goals every game. We know the goals will come because of our talent, but we need to play both ends of the ice."
As Johnson said, scoring hasn't been an issue. Entering the week, the Wildcats average of 5.3 goals per game was the fifth best in Class AA.
Johnson is the team leader in goals (13) and points (23), but is hardly the only Wildcat putting up good offensive numbers. Adam Ferguson (four goals, 13 assists), Brendan Johns (nine goals, three assists), Dan Johnson (six goals, six assists), Dalton Hunter (eight goals, two assists in just four games) and Cameron Carr (six goals, three assists) have all chipped in their fair share of points to give Latrobe a deep and balanced attack.
Carr, in fact, just recently moved up to forward a few games ago and scored three goals and added an assist in wins against North Hills and Hampton.
The defense was solid in the victories against the Indians and Talbots, yielding a total of four goals. But Winebrenner knows the process of evolving into a team capable of consistently playing championship-caliber team defense is not going to happen overnight, and it showed in Latrobe's 8-1 loss to Erie Cathedral Prep Friday.
Winebrenner said the key is to make sure the team is hitting its stride come January to build some momentum for the playoffs.
"Some teams are looking at the championship now," Winebrenner said. "You can't look that far out. Prior to the Christmas break, you have to learn about the teams you're playing, correct your mistakes and adjust your system.
"Then in January, that's when you start to try and gain some momentum."