A strong finish to its season has Sewickley Academy hockey coach Tyler Henk excited about the future.
"Our goal is to win the title, and this season was a big confidence booster," first-year Panthers coach Tyler Henk said. "We have a good program and should be strong next year."
The Panthers reached the championship of the five-team Independent School Hockey League championship by defeating Kiski School, 8-7, on Feb. 22. Sewickley went 1-3 against Kiski School, getting outscored, 30-15, during the regular season.
But the Panthers run came to an end in the final, as they fell, 8-1, to Linsly School of Wheeling, W.Va. It was the fourth loss in as many games against the Cadets. this season for Sewickley (8-7-1)
"I wish [the final] would have been different, but everyone wants to get to the final," Henk said. "Everyone wants to get that title shot."
Henk got the shot in his first year as coach.
After Sewickley took a one-year hiatus from hockey, the Panthers returned last season and changed from the PIHL to the ISHL, which also includes Shady Side Academy and Western Reserve Academy.
Ryan Patrick coached the Panthers in their first season in the ISHL, leading Sewickley to a 5-5 record. But in April, Patrick was named the hockey director of Pegula Ice Arena at University Park.
So the Panthers turned to Henk, who wanted to make the transition smooth for his players.
"Going through a coaching change is always tough on the kids," Henk said. "I wanted to make it as easy for them to adapt to my system as I could."
Henk installed an aggressive system where the goal was to get the puck deep into the opponent's zone and battle hard for possession in the corners.
The first-year coach said he leaned on the team's six seniors. Alex Pfeifer was Sewickley's leading scorer and classmate Connor Zierden was the leader of the Panthers' defense. Sewickley also received key contributions from fellow seniors Erik Deitrich Sam Duerry, Sophia Werner and Bobby Haponowicz.
But the Panthers, whose roster increased from 14 players in their first season to 17 this season, had many underclassmen play crucial roles.
Four of the team's six defensemen were freshmen or sophomores, and the team's goaltender, Tim Hanlon, was a ninth-grader.
"[Hanlon] played very well for us," Henk said. "It's a different pace from middle school to high school hockey. He took a few games to adjust, but after that he was very good."
The Panthers got a strong contribution up front from another freshman in Cole Stine, who finished in the top five in points on the Panthers. Pat Bowles, who scored Sewickley's goal in the championship game against Linsly, also will return next season.
"It's going to be tough to lose those seniors, but we have a lot of young talent," Henk said. "We have five or six good eighth-graders that will come up and we'll only have one senior next season.
"The direction of the program is definitely on the climb."