By Bryan Davis
@btdavis25 on Twitter
“We are the SEC of high school hockey.”
The comparison to the preeminent conference in college football was made by veteran West Chester Rustin coach Nick Russo when talking about the state of Chester County hockey. And if the comparison is true, than the Golden Knights are proving themselves to be the Alabama of the A division.
Rustin has piled up wins upon wins, and championships galore during 10 years of existence.
The Golden Knights are on a streak of unprecedented success, having won three straight state championships, and are gunning for a fourth. That feat would put them in rare company in the annals of high school sports in Pennsylvania. According to Russo, fewer than 20 teams across all Pa. high school sports have ever won four titles in a row.
That kind of sustained level of winning is hard to do without a constant rotation of players, and Russo acknowledges the pipeline that has kept him awashed in talented players.
“We have a very good program in the elementary and middle school levels,” Russo said. “Our upperclassmen bring them in and help them get acclimated.”
Despite heavy losses from last year’s championship team, the Golden Knights haven’t missed a beat. They are unbeaten to start the year, going 6-0 overall, and 4-0 in the Ches-Mont.
“We graduated a big class,” said Russo. “We have 15 freshmen contributing.”
Leading the way offensively is senior forward Tommy Sloan, who has six goals and seven assists.
“Tommy is a special player,” said Russo. “He is trying to win his fourth straight championship. He passed the 100-goal mark for his career, which, for a high school hockey player, is quite a feat. Tommy and (goalie) Jason Grande are the keys to the puzzle.”
Scoring punch has also come from Eric Flynn, who leads the team in scoring with six goals and 13 assists, good for sixth place in the Ches-Mont. Forward Ian Strasinski has six goals and eight assists, and veteran Brett Christie has pumped in nine goals for the high-powered attack.
But, as important as the goals have been, every hockey team knows that a good goalie is the X factor to any plans for a winning season.
In Grande, Rustin has not only one of the best in the Ches-Mont, but Russo feels he’s the “best goalie in the state. We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
The senior never seems to get rattled in the net and has the innate ability to rise to the occasion in big games when the Knights need him.
There is still a long way to go until the Flyers Cup, something Russo is well aware of, and he is determined to keep his squad in the here and now and not looking ahead.
“We are going to play a lot of good hockey teams in the Ches-Mont,” he said. “We just want to enjoy the moment and work to get back to the playoffs. Dave Hendricks has done a great job at Downingtown East. Downingtown West is really good also, then you have the other West Chester teams. We just beat each other up, then shake hands.”
Russo feels an unsung benefit to his and other teams success is the presence of Ice Line as a local place to play and practice.
“All of this is a large part due to Ice Line and John Graves,” Russo said. “This is a lot like it is in Canada, where there is a rink in every town. It has played a big part in helping us turn out players like Billy Latta, Jimmy Lodge, Nick Lukko, Eric Knodel and Brian Christie.”
Russo, the only coach the program has ever known, is quick to pass the credit to his staff for Rustin’s sustained success.
“I’ve coached college and professionally, and this is the best staff I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “I put this staff up with any staff in any level of hockey.”
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