Blackhawk had an incredible 2012-13 regular season, going 17-2-1 to tie for the top record in the PIHL Open Division.
But a disappointing loss in the Open Cup's Southwestern Conference semifinals to Wheeling Park has motivated this season's Cougars team, which should be in the playoff mix once again despite key personnel losses.
"That playoff loss was a big shock to all of us," junior Grant Rombold said. "We had big heads and [Wheeling Park] took it to us. It bothered us all offseason and motivated us to work harder and come back this season and go further [in the postseason]."
Kyle Schaefer is the leading returning scorer for Blackhawk (7-4) after netting 28 goals and adding 18 assists in 2012-13. Blackhawk, however, lost its first-, second- and fourth-leading scorers from last season, Daren Braudis, Josh McCuean and Nick Gray, to graduation.
"Those losses definitely hurt," Rombold said. "But other guys have stepped up ...."
Schaefer has taken on an even bigger role, scoring 17 goals and tallying 17 assists while also serving as a leader. Robert Swinderman, who had 18 points as a freshman, has made a leap in his second year having compiled 13 goals and 13 assists already this season. Robert Piccerillo, who is centering the team's second line, has 10 goals and six assists in his first varsity season.
The Cougars' offense has also gotten a boost from Nate and Alex Landy, who joined Blackhawk when the program agreed to co-op with Ambridge Area and Freedom Area after the two schools broke away from their partnerships with Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
"It's really helped us because we can run three lines," Blackhawk coach Matt Stuber said
The game against Harborcreek on Nov. 25 was also the first time Rombold played forward for the Cougars. A junior, he was the team's starting goaltender all of last season and for the first five games this season. But with Stuber looking for a spark, he turned to Rombold to move up to the first line with Schaefer and Swinderman.
Rombold, who plays forward for the Beaver County Badgers travel team, has netted 12 points in four games since the move.
"He gives us more grit," Stuber said. "He's not afraid to go into the corners to get the puck."
Rombold admits he was disappointed about the move at first, but is happy to do what is best for the team. He is still getting a few starts in net as well.
But sophomore Cory Steinle has started four of the last six games in goal and has a 4-0 record and a 2.00 goals-against average. He's done it behind a defense that is trying to replace McCuean, who logged a lot of ice time last season.
The Cougars aren't looking to one player to replace McCuean, but will rely on its depth. Devon Gabauer, Owen Schaefer, Robert Houk and Devin Meegan are all playing key roles on defense.
It's that depth that could be the difference between last season's team and this year's.
"We may not be as skilled as last season, but I think we can be just as good because we have more depth," Rombold said.