STATE COLLEGE — After two successful seasons coming to Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena, West Chester Rustin finds itself returning to Happy Valley to go for three.
Three consecutive Pennsylvania High School Hockey A Championships, that is.
It’s the first time a new team from the west outside of Mars and Quaker Valley has made the State Championships since Freeport went in 2007.
“It’s good and bad (facing someone new),” said Rustin head coach Nick Russo. “It’s nice to have books on people and nice to know a coach’s tendencies. You can watch all the game film in the world, but unless you know them personally — you get pretty intimate with Mars and Quaker Valley guys over the years and they kind of became like playing East or Henderson in a way, but I like the idea of it being new blood.”
One thing Rustin may have on its side over Franklin Regional is the fact that the Golden Knights players have been here before, with several of them having done so twice.
But, as Russo is quick to point, there are also pros and cons to that as well.
“You can be overconfident,” he said. “I think the main thing is the kids are pretty loose right now, which is good. We’ll get them focused tonight at bed checks and in the morning at breakfast. I think being here has a lot to do with it. The building itself is intimidating. I’m sure (Franklin Regional) has never been here before, except maybe one or two players. It’s like playing in the Wells Fargo Center for a lot of these kids.”
Another difference for Rustin, besides the opposition, is the fact that their start time has been pushed back an hour from the past few years.
Originally, the A Championship game was played at 11 a.m., which was the case until about a week ago when the game was moved to noon.
“I like the extra hour,” Russo said. “It gives me an extra hour to worry, but it also gives me an extra hour to sleep. I like that because I don’t sleep much these days. I think it’s a good idea. An hour here or an hour there doesn’t make that big of a difference, but I think it does for the kids.”
It wasn’t quite an up-and-down season for Rustin, as the defending champions posted a 16-3-2 overall record and an 8-3-1 Ches-Mont record, finishing third in the conference.
However, Russo admitted that it has been one of his tougher seasons as his roster all year has been overflowing with players – a luxury many teams would feel blessed to have, but not something that is always easy to deal with.
“It was the toughest year for me,” Russo said after his team won the Flyers Cup a week ago. “There were a lot of issues trying to find the lines that would work. It was just that kind of year.”
When push came to shove and the season ended the win-or-go-home stage in the postseason, Rustin stepped up to the challenge and excelled, winning both the Ches-Mont and Flyers Cup crown for the second year in a row.
And just like the previous two runs to the State Championships, Rustin had a clunker of a game before propelling themselves to the title.
This year, that game came against Hershey in the quarterfinals round where Rustin had a 4-0 lead before letting Hershey climb back in during the third period.
On the other side of the rink, Rustin will be facing Franklin Regional, which has never reached the State Championships before.
The team, from a school located in Murrysville — about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh — went 16-6 over the season with a plus-79 goal differential, but only went 3-2 over the last five games before the Penguins Cup tournament.
Franklin Regional relied on goaltender Daniel Soltesz to lead the way in net. The freshman started in all three games of the tournament, allowing just four goals and finished with a 1.33 goals-against average. He made 44 saves in the Penguins Cup Championship game against South Fayette in a 4-1 win.
Rustin, on the other hand, has junior Jason Grande, who has backstopped the Golden Knights to their last two state titles. He finished the tournament allowing just five goals and had a 1.70 goals-against average.
“We haven’t been out of my basement the whole month of March,” Russo said. “Fortunately, we had a lot of game film on them and then they broadcasted their Penguins Cup Final, so we were all over Tuesday night watching that. I feel pretty comfortable knowing what they’re going to do.”
Whatever cliché of three anyone wants to use — third time is the charm, a three-peat — doesn’t make a difference to Rustin. It’s a new year, a new team, a new opponent and a new game. All they want to do is play the best they can and hope for the outcome they all want.
“I don’t know if I believe that (the third time is the charm), but I do grow a stupid playoff beard every year, so I guess I am a little superstitious,” Russo said. “I’m confident that we’re prepared. I think it would be nice to three-peat. Nobody has done that in a while and I think we would represent the East real well.”