'Why not us?': Playoffs set in balanced Laurel Mountain Hockey League

Mar. 12—Veteran Richland High School hockey coach J.J. Vasilko believes his team's double duties this season are paying dividends at an opportune time.

His fourth-seeded Rams (10-7-1) will open the Laurel Mountain Hockey League playoffs against fifth-seeded Somerset (10-7-1) at 7:50 p.m. Tuesday at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial.

Third-seeded State College (11-6-1) and sixth-seeded Altoona (10-6-2) will play at 5:50 p.m.

"We have the 'Why not us?' mentality," Vasilko said. "We have all the pieces needed to make a playoff run."

Top-seeded and undefeated Hollidaysburg (18-0-0) and second-seeded Forest Hills (14-4-0) each have first-round byes in the Ann Harris Smith Cup championship tournament.

The semifinals will be held Thursday at Penn State University's Pegula Ice Arena. The championship game will be at 7:30 p.m. March 19 at 1st Summit Arena.

"This is the most balanced the league has been in years," Vasilko said.

Richland competed in both the local LMHL and the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League this season.

The Rams failed to advance to the PIHL Penguins Cup playoffs, but skating in two leagues enabled more players to receive ice time and develop.

"I really think we're hitting our stride," Vasilko said. "Playing in the two leagues, I think you saw a big advance from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. I think we're conditioned properly."

According to the LMHL statistics, Richland is led by Jack Lorence with 35 goals, 16 assists and 51 points. Connor Bethmann (16-13-29), Tanner Pfeil (6-10-16) and Noah Brydon (4-11-15) also are team scoring leaders. Goaltender Alea Ladika is 8-6-0, and Grant Petrusic is 2-2-0.

"I really like where we're at," Vasilko said. "We played Hollidaysburg tight (in a 5-3 loss on March 5). We came out on the losing end, but played a good game. It's going to be fun to see Somerset in a playoff game again.

"We know from 15 years of experience, Somerset is going to be ready. Their coaches know how to maximize every player they have and get the most out of them. That's what makes them dangerous."

Somerset is led by Ethan Ash (19-7-26), Trenton Smith (13-7-20), Mitchell Hoffman (10-6-16), Westin Gary (3-7-10) and Alex Kostyk (2-8-10). Goaltender Kai Petrosky is 7-4-0, and Nicholas Gomish has three wins.

"We have a very solid team, top to bottom," Somerset coach Tyler Shumaker said. "We've faced a lot of adversity this year with injuries and have overcome those. I think we're a tough team to play against because of our depth and ability to run three lines."

Shumaker said the Golden Eagles rely on senior leaders such as Ash, Anthony Jellison and Christian Bender.

"We have a big junior class, and we get a lot of goal-scoring from Trenton Smith and Alex Kostyk," Shumaker said.

Forest Hills will await the highest-seeded winner of Tuesday's games. The Rangers will play in the 8:30 p.m. semifinal Thursday.

"Playoffs are going to be interesting," Rangers coach John Kubas said. "Every team in there is pretty good. The top seed, Hollidaysburg, is undefeated, and it's going to be tough to beat them."

Forest Hills point leaders include Chase Secriskey (27-24-51), Isaac Dibble (22-16-38), Josh Morrison (11-16-27), Cody Secriskey (18-5-23) and Thomas Russell (11-9-20).

"Our strongpoint is our offense," Kubas said. "We have five kids in the top 15 in league points this year."

Goaltender Isaac Valko is 13-3-0 with a 3.78 goals against average.

"Valko sees the puck well," Kubas said. "He's good when there is a lot of traffic. He is quick. He has a good glove."

The playoff field was set after Bishop McCort Catholic forfeited two games due to a rules violation and dropped out of the top six.

"It's unfortunate that's how it came down," Someset's Shumaker said, "but it worked out in our favor, and we're hoping to take advantage of it.

"The league was very balanced this year. We had really good games with Forest Hills and everybody else. Hollidaysburg is a little step up from the rest of the competition."

Mike Mastovich is a sports reporter and columnist for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Masty81.