North Xtra: Fox Chapel struggling in its return to the ice

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After Rick Villani came to an agreement last spring with the Fox Chapel Hockey Club's board of directors to coach the Foxes' varsity team, he began calling all the amateur hockey players from the Fox Chapel area he knew.

After being forced to take a year hiatus due to a lack of numbers, Fox Chapel once again had a varsity squad.

"I have coached amateur hockey for 18 years," said Villani, who has coached such amateur teams as the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins, Vipers and Huskies and the Steel City Ice Renegades. "I knew a lot of the kids from this area, but none were playing high school hockey; they were all playing AA and AAA [junior] hockey.

"So I asked them if they were playing for Fox Chapel and I got a great response. Almost everyone said, 'Yes, I'll play.'

After getting the numbers needed to field a team, Villani put together a few scrimmages last spring against Gateway, Sewickley Academy and Shaler Area.

The Foxes beat the Gators and Panthers and the players were happy to be a part of their school squad.

"It was really exciting," senior Anthony Veltri said. "I basically took the year off from hockey and was happy to be able to come back in my senior year."

The vast majority of the team that played in the spring scrimmages returned this fall for the PIHL season. While the Foxes (2-9 with a game Tuesday against North Allegheny) have had their growing pains, there have been bright spots.

Fox Chapel notched its first win in more than 21 months in a 5-1 victory against Norwin on Dec. 6. The Foxes also beat Central Catholic, 8-5, in the final game before the winter break. The Vikings had won four consecutive games before falling to Fox Chapel.

The key in the two wins this season has been Veltri, who had six goals and six assists in the team's two victories. Veltri is currently second in Class AAA in points with 25 (14 goals, 11 assists).

"He's just a natural at finding the net," Villani said. "He has a wicked, wicked shot. There's no big windup, but he can just snap it off from any position. It's freakish and catches goalies off guard. When he gets his opportunities, he finishes."

Veltri gives a lot of credit to his linemate, sophomore Ben Friedland, for his success. Friedland entered the week second in Class AAA in assists (14) and sixth in points (22).

"He's out there making plays and setting me up for the goals," Veltri said.

Friedland is one of the many underclassmen on the Foxes. Fox Chapel has just two seniors and two juniors, with the rest of its almost 20-player roster consisting of freshmen and sophomores.

Another one of the sophomores is goaltender Chad Veltri, Anthony's brother. While Villani never coached the older Veltri in amateurs, he has been Chad's coach prior to this season.

Villani said his netminder, who has faced more shots than any other goaltender in Class AAA, has kept his team in games this season.

"He's one of the best 16-and-under goalies in Pittsburgh," Villani said. "We're outshot every game because we only run two-and-a-half lines most games while other teams are running three or four. So we lean a lot on his shoulders."

His best game may have been in a loss to Class AAA power Bethel Park, when Chad Veltri allowed just three goals on 64 shots in a 3-2 defeat.

Villani's daughter, Olivia, is one of the team's top defensemen in front of Veltri, along with Shane Tolusciak and Jasper Urichhio, who moved back from forward because of injuries and eligibility issues.

But the Foxes are hoping to get healthier soon, as Villani expects Ryan Troutman (concussion) and Johnny Rice (torn labrum) back soon, with Adam Rosenburg (concussion) and Nate Condron (broken collarbone) hopefully returning later in the season.

"The [holiday] break came at the right time for us because it allowed us to get healthy," Villani said.

The Foxes will now try and make a push for the playoffs. Fox Chapel is four points out of the final playoff spot with nine games remaining.

But however the season turns out, Villani has a broader plan. He told the board of directors it would be a three- to five-year process, and he believes that the talent he has in his underclassmen makes it likely that the team can compete for a championship sooner rather than later.

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