SALEM TWP. — If there’s one thing a head coach wants to see from his program, it’s growth. Now in his second year, Plum head coach Vinnie Somma has seen plenty of it as his Mustangs are now 3-0 and atop the PIHL Class AA Eastern Conference.
Somma saw plenty of opportunity when he took over the reigns of his alma mater’s hockey club before the 2015-16 season. But it took a lot of work to get the team to where he needed it to be. The Mustangs started to make progress in Somma’s first campaign, but their postseason was cut short by a tough draw and a 3-2 loss to Mars in the first round of the Penguins Cup playoffs last year.
This year, the Mustangs are off to an impressive start and Plum isn’t just winning, either. They’ve jumped all over their first three opponents, including a 6-1 drubbing of Penn-Trafford at Center Ice Arena Monday night. They also trounced Hempfield, 9-1, and avenged their loss to Mars with a 6-2 beating. They’ve scored 21 goals while allowing just four and have laid claim — along with fellow 3-0 club Hampton — to one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference.
“I think it was a mixture of a lot of teaching done last year coming to fruition this year,” Somma said of his team’s marked improvement from a year ago. “We started with a group of guys and kind of molded them in to what we wanted them to be. By the end of the year, they started to get it. So when we started this year, we had a group who mainly stayed together. It’s easy to get back on track. They already know how we’re going to play the system. They kind of just came in to the rink expecting to win every game.”
Make no mistake about it, the Mustangs are gunning for a championship. With 10 seniors on the roster, a balanced offense, strong defense and quality goaltending, Plum has all the ingredients of a championship club.
“That’s huge,” Somma said. “It’s a good thing when you have good leadership and a lot of older guys. It makes it a lot easier. … We didn’t score that many goals last year. This year, we can finally score more than three goals per game, which is nice, but we kind of pride ourselves in the defensive game, as well. We’ve only given up four goals this year. Knock on wood, we want to keep that number down.”
Doing the biggest part to keep the goals out of the net is goaltender Sergio Benitez. Benitez is a full-time starter for the first time in his career, but with a 1.33 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage — second and third in the conference, respectively — he’s doing more than his fair share of the work on this upperclassman-laden team.
“He’s a good goalie,” Somma said. “I don’t think there’s been any transition. He’s just stepped right up, stepped to the plate and he’s doing great so far. We have a lot of guys trying to play for him as well, which makes it a lot easier for him, but he’s made some big saves.”
“I’ve been looking forward to this year, too, because [my class is finally with] the older kids. We can show them what we have,” Benitez said. “You really want to play for those seniors because you know it’s their last year. You don’t want them to leave with a bad taste in their mouth. Every time you go on, you just think that if it’s one one their last games, you want it to be a good one.”
While Benitez has been appreciative of the hard work his defense has done in keeping his crease clear and not “hanging him out to dry,” the offense of the team has been the real dynamo, in his eyes.
“We’re 3-0 now. We’ve been outscoring teams by five every game, as well, so it’s been pretty solid,” he said. “Our offensive is really potent, so we don’t have to rely on defense as much as other teams.”
Benitez and the Mustangs see their 3-0 run as not just a strong start to the season, but a portent of more positive things to come.
“I absolutely think we’re the best team in the league this year,” he said. “I think we’re going to dominate every single team that we play against.”
Diplomatically, Somma took a more measured approach.
“We’ll see. We’ve only seen three teams,” he said. “Every team changes from year to year. We still have to play Hampton and Latrobe. We’ll see. I have no clue what they look like. I’m just looking forward to it. We have a couple big games coming up.”
The Mustangs will visit Greater Latrobe at Kirk S. Nevin Arena in Greensburg on Monday as they look to continue their winning ways. Face-off is scheduled for 7:15 p.m.