Lower Merion >> In recent seasons, the Lower Merion ice hockey team has made it one of their goals to be selected to the prestigious Flyers Cup tournament.
So when the Aces finished last season’s 2-15 campaign the coaching staff knew one major change had to occur – a hungry mindset.
“We preached as a coaching staff to be hungry, face adversity and fight to bounce back quickly,” said head coach Dan Pike. “We did not want to wait a few seasons to be labeled competitive again, we wanted it now.”
With a new attitude bolstered by a full roster along with the addition of supporting cast on the bench with addition of assistant coaches Walker Scudder and Tony Stedeford the Aces (12-7-2) started strong, overcame a tough mid-season stretch and finished the season winning nine of their final 12 games that was god enough to clinch the No. 3 seed for the Central League playoffs.
After suffering an early round loss in the Central League playoffs, Pike reminded this team a short memory this time of year was exactly what they needed with the Flyers Cup playoffs on the horizon.
With their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Pike hoped their strong finish would be enough. When the seeds were announced Feb. 27 and the Aces heard their name called, everyone knew it was time to get back to work and put that short memory to good use.
After receiving an opening round bye, the 7th seeded Aces opened this year’s playoffs with a 6-3 win over Kennett to advance to the quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals, Lower Merion went up against heavily favored West Chester East.
The Aces gave the Vikings all they could handle before eventually running out of gas in the third period and falling to the eventual Flyers Cup “A” division finalists and see their memorable season come to a close along with the careers of their four seniors – Captain Everhett Grimes (forward), Alternate Captains Brendan Leonard (forward) and Jack Pearson (forward) and Luca Saleh (goalie).
“It was a hockey season I will never forget,” said Grimes, who finished the season with 62 points (37 goals/25 assists) and was named Central League All-Star. “I think we left a lot on the table with how early we lost but I am very satisfied and proud of the team to make it as far as we did. I will miss playing for the school.”
“The most valuable lesson the team learned from last year is that each game is not given to us, and we have to compete every second of each game,” said junior Sam Pitonyak, who served as an Alternate Captain. “Our senior class was a major component for our offensive play and they were huge role models on the team, everyone looked up to them and had full respect for them.”
Sophomore goalie Justin Greenspan added, “I think having a leader like Everett Grimes was great for us. He was a great guy to play under and it’s unfortunate the kids that will not get to learn from him or the other three seniors in the future. For me, it was just great to have some older guys with more experience than me to teach me how to act respectfully and keep playing the way I did.”
As most teams do during a long season, bumps in the road will occur. It’s how you handle them shows the type of team you compiled. With Grimes out of the line-up for four games due to injury, LM hit their bump in the road but the senior captain provided his leadership in other ways.
While the team worked through the line-up shuffle they stayed together and upon Grimes’ return, the Aces hit the ice ready to get back what they missed out on last season – Flyers Cup playoffs.
“Missing games due to my injury was very discouraging to my game,” said Grimes. “I was ready to compete but had to watch and try to motivate the team. We went into a losing streak during that time and I saw that we were struggling. I told the team they did not need me on the ice to win games especially with the talent we had throughout the team. I told them that every play matters in hockey and we can let up or go into games thinking we will lose.”
Playing their best hockey at the right time keyed by timely goals and strong goaltending, Lower Merion closed the regular season with a 3-1 win over a previously unbeaten Haverford High squad.
“Without the play of our goalie, we would not have made it to where we got,” said Pitonyak.”Justin (Greenspan) was always there to make up for the mistakes the rest of us made on the ice and without him, the season could have gone a completely different path.”
Pike added, “This year was extremely special for us as a team, program and individually. I think a ton of young men found another level within themselves. We always preach to the team that they can have anything and take what is rightfully theirs if they work and push hard enough. We faced tough adversity and worked together to overcome it. We took hard blows yet continued to fight. We learned how to compete for the guy next to you and leave it all on the ice. It was really special to see these young men hear what we were telling them and buy into it- with success. We grew a lot these past eight months.”