Hampton coach encouraged by team’s efforts despite initial struggles

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Saturday January 21, 2023 | 11:01 a.m


Buck McKee, Hampton’s freshman hockey coach, has few wins and few players, but one thing he has in abundance – optimism.

“I’m really excited that Hampton Hockey is progressing,” he said. “We do with what we have. They’re making leaps and bounds and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

Hampton was 2-11 on January 22 and near the bottom of the PIHL Class A Blue Division standings. The Talbots were outplayed 93-28 while attempting to compete with 14 skaters, the thinnest roster among 56 teams at all levels of the PIHL.

But the team’s improvement is unmistakable, even if the progress isn’t reflected in its tally.

Think of the Talbots’ two meetings with Indiana.

In the October 3 season opener, the Talbots were six goals behind Indiana after two thirds on their way to a 9-0 loss that left them 50-6 down.

In the January 12 rematch, despite playing with just 10 players, Hampton struggled against host Indiana in a 6-2 loss that saw a tie late in the second third and Indiana just one goal in the third.

Both games went into the books as defeats. But the coaches and players know the two efforts couldn’t have been more different.

“That says a lot,” said junior defender Andrew Bagnato. “We had 10 skaters. Indiana had three or four lines. The effort we had to put in to keep the game a draw in the second period was absolutely amazing. It shows how much we have really improved since the beginning of the year.”

Bagnato pairs with veteran defenseman Erica Gynn to form the Talbots’ top defensive tandem. They’re trying to ease the pressure on junior goaltender Nathan Dembowski, who is averaging 46 shots a game, or nearly one a minute.

“He makes great saves and keeps us in the game,” McKee said of Dembowski. “(Bagnato and Gynn) are a solid couple. They’re in every game, they play hard, they work well together.

“To be honest, they’re the only consistent (defensive) pairing we’ve had this year. Aside from Erica and Andrew, I don’t have any set lines per se. Set nothing. It’s just “Who’s here tonight and how are we going to make this work?” “

The bright spot this season is junior forward Sean Sullivan, who has scored 12 goals in 11 games. The rest of the Talbots have scored 16 goals combined.

Sullivan scored a hat-trick against Wheeling Catholic on December 12, including a late goal from a man down in a 5-3 win, the Talbots’ only win since late October.

Junior forward Joey Vinciguerra is second on the team with seven points (3 goals, 4 assists).

Senior defenseman Cody Bianco, the team’s only PIHL All-Star last year, missed a handful of games, and junior forward James Elk, who led the team in assists last season, only played eight games and two Points scored (1g, 1a) all seasons.

“His numbers aren’t where he’d like them to be,” McKee said of Elk.

But the youngsters have shown promise. Freshman Gavin Durden is third with five points despite only playing in seven games, and freshman Eli Schwarzbach has added five points in every game this season.

“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Bagnato said. “Next year is looking pretty good. Everyone pitches in and stay positive this year.”

Hampton is 16-53 as of 2019, but McKee is heartened by the progress this season. The Talbots will only graduate three seniors, so the numbers should improve next season.

“We’re taking baby steps,” McKee said. “Players need time to learn how to win and, more importantly, how to deal with those losses. And they deal with all of that very well.”

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