by Jonathan Weaver
In two weeks, the Armstrong Arrows U16 team will either come back from New Jersey with a national championship or crushed dreams.
The Armstrong Arrows 16U team will be going to the Tier II Midget 16U National Championships in Wayne, New Jersey Thursday, March 31 through Monday, April 4.
Head Coach Lee Grafton plans to push his team to the limit, with possibly a half-dozen practices before the trip.
“We have the talent – we just have to get ready to go,” Coach Grafton said.
First Year Assistant Coach Joel Shriver of Kittanning hopes his previous experience as an Arrow, the Kittanning High School Wildcats and on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s ice hockey team will help propel the team at Nationals.
“I hope they’ve learned a lot,” Shriver said. “Hopefully they keep pushing themselves.
“There have only ever been two other Armstrong Arrows teams in Armstrong Arrows history that have won States.”
Shriver was on the State Champion U14 Arrows team in 2002 that won at the Belmont Complex in East Franklin Township. However, the format did not allow Shriver to play in a national championship game.
Easton Hooks has also been a part of two other championship Arrows teams, but this is his first trip to the national tournament – something he is excited for. He expects to win.
“We’re going to leave with a ‘W,’ Hooks said. “We got to expect the best and just come out strong every game.”
Hooks recalled that the Arrows led the entire game versus Pittsburgh March 13 to win the state championship.
Tanner Stennett, of Worthington, is out to prove the doubters wrong next weekend. The Arrows U16 team ranked fifth in Class AA in the state after the regular season before playing at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon.
“It was an up-and-down season, but we tried. Nobody really expected us to go to Nationals,” Stennett said. “I’m proud of my team because nobody else expected us to go and we made it.”
During the regular season, the U16 team registered a record of 30-18-3.
Stennett will try out for the varsity River Hawks.
Teammate Gio Romeo is only a high school freshman, but played with the varsity River Hawks team this past season. He said he wanted the experience to improve his own game.
“(On) the high school team, you play with older kids so you really have to step up your game – it pushes you a lot more,” Romeo said.
A center and winger that switches off with Romeo, 15-year-old Jacob Gross is the younger brother of this past year’s Varsity Team Captain Luke Gross.
Luke will attend Duquesne University this Fall to study pharmacy.
“I’m going to miss him when he leaves,” Jacob said.
Jacob knew the national stage will be the toughest yet for the Arrows, but said there are a lot of community supporters.
Grafton was also a former Arrows and Kittanning High School hockey coach and hockey player, as well as with the Pittsburgh Amateur Penguins.