The Armstrong Amateur Hockey League has been around since 1968. However, the program has never had a boys team advance to the Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships.
That was until this year.
The Arrows 16U Tier II squad went 5-0 at the Mid-American District tournament on March 10-13 at Ice Castle Arena in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, to take the district’s automatic bid.
“It’s huge,” Arrows coach Lee Grafton said about his team heading to nationals. “The community is really getting behind this team.”
This is the first year since 2012-13 that the Arrows program has had a 16U team. Grafton was asked to get the team up and running. Grafton noted that when he does anything, he’s always going to go after it 100 percent.
“When I was asked to coach this team last year, our goal from the very beginning was nationals,” Grafton said.
Some parents thought Grafton’s notion of getting to nationals in the first year would be a stretch. The team has a young squad with five 16-year-olds, eight 15-year-olds and four 14-year-old skaters, and no experienced players who have competed on the big stage.
“About a quarter of the way into the season, I did individual player meetings and I asked players what their individual goals were,” Grafton said. “Every kid said their team goal was nationals, so I saw they were buying into it.”
The Arrows program, which is based in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, is on the upswing after pushing a boys team to nationals. Last year, the 19U girls squad advanced to the national tournament.
The Arrows (35-18-2) went into district play clicking on all cylinders. They opened round-robin action with a 3-0 victory over the North Pittsburgh Wildcats on March 10. The next day, the Arrows played their tightest game of the tournament against the Erie Lions. The Arrows led 2-1 with under 30 seconds remaining in regulation when the Lions tied the score. But the Arrows didn’t waver and came back to tally a goal in overtime to secure the 3-2 win. Against the Southpointe Rink Rats, Armstrong was triumphant 5-2.
In the semifinals, the Arrows dispatched of the Lions in a rematch 6-2. Later on March 13, Armstrong took on the Pittsburgh Predators and scored a 4-1 victory.
Take away the overtime win, and the Arrows’ other four tournament wins were by three goals or more.
“Our team’s really coming together right now,” Grafton said. “We play a lot of good competition all year and hopefully at the end of the year it comes together, and it seems like it is.”
Armstrong outscored its five opponents at districts 21-7. It’s been a balanced team offensively and defensively all season. The Arrows have outscored their oppositions 181-115.
“We’ve had great goaltending all year,” Grafton said. “I think my team works really hard all over the ice – they backcheck hard, they play hard in defensive zones and we put the puck in the net when we need to.”
Grafton’s two goalies — Greg Smith and James Grasinger, who each have a goals-against average of around 2.00 — had been splitting time evenly throughout the season until Grasinger suffered a knee sprain and missed the final two months. He’s excited to get back for nationals. In his place, Smith as played phenomenally between the pipes.
Smith is one of the four 14-year-olds who have played beyond their years this season against older skaters.
“All the four 14-year-olds have been huge,” Grafton said. “It’s unbelievable what the four 14-year-olds have been able to step up and do.”
The other 14-year-olds include Jace Rearic, the team’s leading scorer; Jerome Oliver, a solid defenseman who was moved to forward; and Ronan Miller, who at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds has the best hands on the team, according to his coach.
“They’ve come so far,” Grafton said. “At the beginning of the season and being only 14, they were intimidated.”
Team captain Gio Romeo has been an instrumental player this season and Jacob Gross is an unbelievably fast skater who is the “backbone of the team,” Grafton said.
The Arrows head into national tournament on an eight-game winning streak. Just being at nationals for the first time isn’t enough, they want to make some noise.
“Our goals have changed and we got together and talked about it,” Grafton said. “We now want to go there and win it.”
In order to do that, the Arrows players have it give it all they have the entire tournament.
“I want you out there for no more than 30 to 45 seconds, and you give me everything you’ve got every shift,” Grafton said. “The team knows what I expect in the defensive zone, they know what I expect in the offensive zone. They’ve just got to go out there and do what they need to do 100 percent.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.