WARRENDALE — Mars may have seen its Penguins Cup championship streak end last season, but that does not mean the Planets’ success has run its course.
Not if you look at the team’s body of work since just before Thanksgiving.
The Planets (10-2-1) are unbeaten in their past nine games.
The reason? A mixture of things, notably getting healthy and growing as a team.
“We definitely have a core of juniors and seniors — like Max Master, Craig Mazzotta, Reed Salada and others — that have definitely stepped up and assumed a leadership role,” said Mars assistant coach Steve Neese.
Mars was gunning for its fourth consecutive Penguin Cup title last year, but fell to Quaker Valley in the Class A final.
It didn’t help matters when the team’s top scorer, Austin Heakins, opted to play for the Penguins’ Under-18 Elite team this season.
“It’s tough to replace a kid like that,” Neese added. “He’s the complete package, vocal, a leader and all that.
“We were going for our fourth last year, but I wasn’t sure what to expect this year. We’re young with only two upper-class defensemen and one plays with the Pens Elite team. (Ian Houk-Graves) has played in just six of 12 games.”
Other injuries include starting netminder Alex Stepke, who has played just six games and has been out eight weeks, and goalie Christian Knapp, who has played six games after battling through injury.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of players out,” Mazzotta said. “We’re getting them back into the lineup.”
Throw in Salada, playing in his first game against Greensburg Central Catholic on Tuesday because of a shoulder injury, and forward Kyle Thomas, who broke his collarbone, and you can see it may take the Planets a little more time to round into shape.
However, after consecutive losses to Kittanning (5-3) and Quaker Valley (5-2), the Planets have righted the ship, outscoring their opponents 68-18, the lone blemish a 2-all affair against Westmont-Hilltop Dec. 11.
“We can see now that we’ve played 12 games that guys are getting into our system and they way we like to play,” Neese said. “We’ve been a much more balanced attack than we have in recent seasons.”
“We always expect to go far,” said Salada. “We’re expected to win games, but we’re a young team, especially on defense.”
Offensively, the Planets have a cluster of scorers, led by Mazzotta (15 goals, 11 assists, 26 points) and Ed Schwadron (12-10-22), Master (9-13-22), Nick Makozy (11-10-21) and Trevor Tisdale (8-9-17).
Beau Heakins (5-5-10), Owen Vasbinder (5-5-10) and Nick Berteotti (5-4-9) have also played strong.
“Offensively, we’re a good team but we need to stick the puck in the net some more,” Mazzotta noted.
Defensively, the return of Salada should bolster the lineup and the younger defensemen will continue to develop into their roles.
When that comes together, the Planets should be a serious title contender again.
“We have a very good shot here,” Neese said. “We need to play the way we can and get guys healthy. That’s our key right now, getting guys back.”