Trying to incorporate a bunch of young players up front, the Freeport High School hockey team started the season slow by winning just one of its first six games of the season.
But the Yellowjackets (6-3-2), the third-best team in the 2012-13 regular season in PIHL Class A, have come on strong since mid-December, having won five contests in a row.
“I just think we’ve come together more as a team,” Freeport coach Dave Hepler said. “We have a good mix of players, age-wise, on the team and the younger players are stepping up more as the season moves along.”
Four of the team’s top seven scorers — Michael Frazetta, Nick Rusak, Robby Reichenbaugh and Stone Haberstroh — are either freshmen or sophomores.
Frazetta has two goals and seven assists during the five-game win streak, while Haberstroh and Rusak have combined for eight goals and five assists during that span, including a hat trick for Rusak in Freeport’s most recent victory, an 8-4 decision against South Park last Thursday.
Reichenbaugh has sat out a few games with a lower-body injury, but returned for the South Park game and recorded three assists.
The Yellowjackets are also young in net, where sophomores Matthew Huston and Katie Hill and junior Dominic DiGiacobbe have split the goaltending duties based on matchups.
Huston has started two of the past five games and Hill has started three, combining to go 5-0 and stopping 93 of 101 shots (.921 save percentage).
“They’re all doing a very nice job,” Hepler said. “We’re playing the matchup with them, but I’ll also ride the hot hand.”
The goaltenders are helped by an experienced, physical defense. Seniors Jared Kapustik, Brendon Zack and Connor Dlubak and junior Ethan Waddell all stand at least 6-feet tall and weigh at least 175 pounds.
“All are big, strong guys not afraid to throw their bodies around,” Hepler said.
They are joined on the blue line by a freshman, Cassie Suran, whom Hepler said has been a very nice addition to the defense.
The depth and experience in the back has allowed Hepler not to be as defensive-minded as he has been the past few seasons.
“We have a strong defense and they are able to get the puck up the ice and out of our zone, allowing our forwards just to do their thing,” Hepler said.
Hepler’s son, Cole, has done his thing quite well this season, with 15 goals and nine assists in nine games to lead the team in points with 24. A four-year starter, he has 118 career points (65 goals, 53 assists).
Hepler is coming off his best game of his PIHL career, points-wise at least. He scored three goals and added four assists in Freeport’s 10-1 victory against South Park on Jan. 9 (the Yellowjackets played the Eagles in back-to-back games).
That came just two days after Hepler had a goal in the Yellowjackets’ biggest win of the season, a 4-2 victory against Mars Area.
Mars, which has appeared in each of the past six Class A Penguins Cup championship games, had won 11 consecutive games before the loss to Freeport on Jan. 7.
It was the second time this season Freeport played the Planets well. The Yellowjackets held a 4-3 lead against Mars after two periods in the teams’ matchup on Dec. 12 before the Planets exploded for five goals in the final period to win, 8-5.
Freeport also battled two-time defending Penguins Cup champion Quaker Valley tough in a 3-1 loss in November, a game Cole Hepler missed half of with an injury.
The Yellowjackets’ ability to play well against the league’s top teams — it also lost to Section 1 leader Thomas Jefferson 5-4 — gives the team confidence heading into the season’s home stretch.
“It’s a big confidence boost,” Hepler said. “We’ve played the best teams in the league and gave them all they could handle. It gives us confidence that we can play with anyone.”