Greater Latrobe lost a trio of four-year starters from last season's state championship hockey team in goaltender Shane Brudnok, forward Josh Singley and defenseman Robert Vasinko.
Their graduation, along with the in-season departure of talented sophomore Dalton Hunter, hurt the Wildcats enough that a repeat was not in the cards.
Latrobe earned the No. 6 seed in the Class AA Penguins Cup and lost its quarterfinal matchup against No. 3 Armstrong, 7-3, last week.
"I think the biggest difference was maturity and experience," Latrobe coach John Winebrenner said. "We needed our younger guys to get that experience this year.
"We also had to change the way our team played. We couldn't run the same system we did last season, and it took us awhile to find the right one."
Last season, the Wildcats played a very aggressive forechecking style. But without its top forechecker (Singley), its top defenseman (Vasinko) and the Post-Gazette Player of Year in net (Brudnok), the Wildcats couldn't afford to attack the way they did last season.
So around the Christmas break, the team settled on a more defensive 1-2-2 system. After a loss to Chartiers Valley in their first game after the break put the Wildcats at 5-5-1, Latrobe finished the season on a bit of a run at 6-3-2 to head into the playoffs with some momentum.
"I think the changes we made worked well for us," Winebrenner said. "We started to play pretty well. But in the playoffs, it was a tough one. We wanted to have a better game than that."
Latrobe (11-8-3) fell behind 4-0, but got within two at 4-2 and 5-3 before the Riverhawks closed out the game with two power-play goals in the third period.
The Wildcats didn't have the depth offensively to stay with Armstrong, the second-highest scoring team in the league. Latrobe was sixth in scoring after leading Class AA last season.
"I think our [lack of] depth this season was the biggest thing," senior Chris Johnson said. "We had a solid one-two lines, but we needed more offense."
Johnson led the team in goals (24) and assists (25), and Latrobe also got solid production up front from Adam Ferguson (38 points), Brendan Johns (29 points) and Dan Johnson (26 points). But the loss of Singley, a three-time PIHL All-Star, and Hunter, who led the Wildcats in points last postseason as a freshman, really hurt.
Hunter showed what he could do in the six games he did play for Latrobe this season, scoring eight goals. But he was bumped up to the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 18U AAA team during the season, and couldn't play for the Wildcats after that.
"That was a tough [personnel] loss for us," Winebrenner said. "As everyone knows, he's a very good player on the ice and he controls things. He's a tremendous leader, but he's got a future in this sport and we understand and support that."
But no loss was as great for the Wildcats as the loss of Brudnok, who led Class AA in wins (19), save percentage (.927), goals-against average (1.55) and shutouts (five) last season.
Junior Tim Ruppen did his best to fill Brudnok's shoes, and after a slow start, came on strong in the second half, losing only three of his final 11 starts and recording his first shutout in a 33-save performance against West Allegheny in January.
"Shane was a big loss," Johnson said. "Everyone knows Tim had some pretty big footsteps to fill, but he stepped up and played well. He progressed throughout the year and I think he'll be even better next year."
Johnson believes the program, which has won four of the past seven Class AA state championships, will continue to be strong in the future.
"Latrobe is always pretty strong and I look for them to continue to be a team to beat and challenge for the Penguins Cup and state championship. I think they have a pretty good future."