WHITE TWP, Pa. — Last season, Indiana High School had arguably the best offense in all of PIHL Class-A. Scoring 134 goals in the regular season last year, the Chiefs were a potent threat when they had possession of the puck.
Much of that success was due to standout forward Pat O’Neal. With 37 goals and 76 points in only 19 games last season, O’Neal helped turn Indiana into an offensive powerhouse. Indiana’s dominance prevailed throughout the playoffs up until the Class-A Penguins Cup championship game. The Indians offense was shut down while the defense was exploited, resulting in a crushing 6-1 loss at the hands of the Franklin Regional Panthers.
That championship game marked the end of O’Neal’s time with Indiana as he graduated high school and begun his new journey in life. O’Neal, who was awarded a roster spot with the Hawkesbury Hawks of the Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL), thought that Indiana will still boast a highly competitive club year without his help.
“I think Indiana’s hockey team will do very well without me and several of the seniors that graduated after last season,” said O’Neal. “The underclassmen from last year have a lot of heart and a desire to win that will help them throughout the upcoming season.”
The talented forward and Indiana alumnus spoke very highly of his alma mater, and O’Neal even hinted at a championship run for his hometown team.
“They are returning a lot of players that can get the job done,” he said. “I do believe that the Indiana team this year can be a serious contender for the Penguins Cup.”
ADJUSTING TO THE DEPARTURE
Jordan Haines, who is the head coach of the Indiana squad, agreed that the program lost a great player. Haines also believes, however, that much of O’Neal’s success was in part to the players that surrounded him.
“Pat was a natural scorer and he could put the puck in the net,” Haines explained. “He also got a lot of help from his teammates. Guys like Ethan Boyer and Mitchell Lewis contributed a lot to his success here.”
Haines explained that even though a player as offensively gifted as O’Neal is no longer on the roster, Indiana could achieve even more than they did last year.
“We’re actually a stronger team this year than we were last year,” Haines said. “Last year we didn’t have very much depth at all. This year we have four pretty solid lines, and a lot of young kids ready to step up.”
Haines also hinted about a change in scheme this season in how the team transitions the puck off the ice due to the loss of O’Neal.
“Last season, our forwards would take the puck in the neutral zone and use their speed to try to weave around the defense,” Haines explained. “Our ultimate plan is to start back in our own zone, involve our defense in the rush, and move up the puck up the ice that way. Our defense is fresh, but they’re solid.”
A PLAYER NOT SOON FORGOTTEN
O’Neal was everything that a coach could have wanted in a forward. Last fall, he was also invited to attend training camp for the Johnstown Tomahawks of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). He, was an offensive-minded forward who could also be relied on in key defensive situations. The skills that O’Neal possessed undoubtedly made Indiana a lethal team to play against.
“With losing Pat, you’re losing an amazing goal scorer,” Haines said. “We would love to have him and his scoring touch back. He was a fantastic player. But we can’t dwell on that and this group needs to move forward and in a different direction.”
O’Neal, is residing in Canada as he continues his season with Hawkesbury, offered a bit of advice to the rest of his team in order to succeed this season: be responsible defensively.
“I would say that a good balance between offense and defense is a huge part of junior hockey,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal explained that a great hockey player has to become more than just an offensive player. In order to secure a roster a roster spot on any sort of hockey team, O’Neal explained, a player must be reliable in their own end.
“If the coaches can not trust you in the defensive zone, you will not play,” O’Neal added.
If Indiana follows the advice gifted from their former star while building on the foundation their coach has set, then the club will enjoy a successful season during their quest for a Penguins Cup championship.
Indiana is 0-1-0 after an opening-week loss to Meadville. They’ll visit Greensburg Central Catholic at Nevin Arena in Greensburg on Thursday at 8:35 p.m.