As a high school senior, Bray Sehnert would have plenty on his plate, regardless of what was going on in the world.
Not only does graduation and a college decision loom for the young man — he has plans to attend a military or service academy — Sehnert is also the captain of the Peters Township boys hockey team.
His squad is 8-1 entering the final week of February, second in Class AAA in points percentage and once again in position to make a Penguins Cup playoff run. For a player who took it upon himself to organize physically-distanced outdoor workouts for teammates last summer, after COVID-19 cancelled a promising 2020 postseason, this should be the culmination of his amateur sports career to date.
But as we all know, the past 12 months have been a mind-bending experience. The pandemic has spared nothing in its path, and hockey is no exception: Peters Township still has 11 games to play before the end of March.
That’s E-L-E-V-E-N, as in double digits. Ten plus one. Just shy of a dozen. Which, come to think of it, might also be close to the total number of practices coach Rick Tingle’s team has gotten in since October.
“We haven’t really had as much team activity as I’m used to,” Sehnert said last week. “However, playing more games in a shorter amount of time has led to more consistent play. We play every game the same way, and it has worked out so far this season.”
Typically at this time of the PIHL year, teams across the region are putting the finishing touches on their regular seasons. The squads that performed best would be getting locked in and loaded up for the playoffs.
In 2021, some teams are merely crossing the midway point as the calendar flips to March.
“I think it’s gone pretty well given the circumstances we have to deal with,” Sehnert said. “We are well on our way to completing a full season. Obviously the pandemic has caused some problems with consistent ice time, but we have made it work as a team.”
Sehnert spoke with me last week, the night before an increase in COVID-19 cases at school led to the postponement of a rivalry matchup with Canon-McMillan, plus a non-league Senior Night game against Meadville.
While these kinds of adjustments are par for the course in 2020-21 — this is the third time Peters Township has had to shut down team activities — Sehnert acknowledged the accumulating tension and the impact it’s had on his life.
“For me, it’s been the stress of it all,” Sehnert said. “It feels like I’m under more pressure than I should be, whether that be college decisions, homework, or hockey games. It all feels way more stressful than it needs to be. I have learned to relax and take my time with the things I need to get done through all this.”
Head out the Parkway East and it’s a similar story of perseverance for another school with the initials P.T. Penn-Trafford has also churned out good results this season, contending for a playoff spot in the Class AA Southeast with a 6-3-1 mark.
Sophomore goalie Jackson Kerrigan has played in every game and has gotten every decision for the Warriors, who are scheduled to squeeze eight games into the next four weeks.
“Everyone’s working under the same conditions,” Kerrigan said, “so there’s no excuses not to be in our best form every time we’re on the ice.”
It’s a familiar refrain when speaking with PIHL players, coaches and parents. It’s a familiar refrain around the world of sports, and really in any walk of life.
No doubt, the past year has been a struggle to say the least, but it does little good to dwell on circumstances.
If you’re competing, you might as well win.
“I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned about myself would be my dedication and will to stay at the top of my game,” Kerrigan said, “even while lockdowns and delays kept me off the ice at times. Just working out, staying loose. Getting on the ice as much as possible.”
Making the most out of the situation may sound trite at this point. You’d be excused for not appreciating it, as the novelty of anti-coronavirus measures is long gone and most of us are weary of masking up and hanging on — even as most of us understand the importance of continued vigilance.
But as the characters of this story remind us, fighting for something as ordinary as a hockey season takes extraordinary effort in times like these.
“I have always greatly appreciated playing the game,” said senior Chartiers Valley defenseman Matt Sedlak. “The feeling and the love for the game is still the same. … We just want to play, so it’s been a huge relief to play and we want to make sure we keep playing.”
For players like Sedlak and his Colts teammates, staying on the ice has been more of a challenge than most. Chartiers Valley’s home rink in Mt. Lebanon has implemented probably the strictest COVID-19 protocols in the PIHL, including a complete facility shutdown from late November through early January and, until recently, a total ban on spectators.
Sedlak’s father Frank, the president of the Chartiers Valley hockey board, told me the team is considering holding its Senior Night game 25 miles away at the Rostraver Ice Garden in Belle Vernon, since that facility has been relatively lax in terms of spectator limits.
“The whole year is upside down,” Frank Sedlak said.
But don’t let that make you think the Colts aren’t approaching the pandemic with appropriate seriousness. A health professional himself, Sedlak said team leadership has gotten little resistance on following the regulations laid out by various rinks, the school district and Allegheny County itself.
“The parents have been pretty good about all that,” Sedlak told me. “The biggest mitigation effort is to get the (players) to wear the masks in the locker room. They’re tight with no ventilation. They’re like a petri dish in there. I’ve had to send some reminding emails on the return-to-play plan, but they understand the mitigation efforts and they’re getting it.
“I put that on the parents. I say it’s your job to stress the importance to the players, if they want to finish the season, and from the health standpoint, too. I haven’t gotten any pushback from the parents, saying, ‘C’mon, do we have to do this?’ ”
As far as team performance goes, Frank Sedlak notes that the COVID-19 protocols “obviously haven’t affected their play,” as the Colts are 9-1-1 and in firm command of the Class A Southwest.
“We’ve gotten off to a fast start,” said Matt Sedlak. “Very little trouble with cases on our team. Not much has been challenging compared to a normal season. We just focus on the task at hand and try to get the job done.”
Let’s not be pollyanna about this. Hockey is part of the real world and there has been real controversy in the real world over how the fiercest pandemic in a century has affected our lives.
If we can put aside what national, state and local authorities have implemented in the public policy realm, the simple act of donning a mask in public has become a matter of dispute for some.
South Fayette freshman winger Colin Dadey has experienced that firsthand, due to his decision to wear a mask during junior varsity games this season. Dadey, who also has asthma, said he’s heard some trash talk from opponents about his team-branded PPE accessory.
“It actually motivates me,” Dadey said. “I just don’t want to get the virus, or have anyone in my family get it. Whatever step it takes to be healthy. It’s not too different. One game it helped me, because it was super cold (in the rink). It’s not too much. It’s not too bad.”
Dadey’s father Kevin, a member of the South Fayette hockey board, said he’s proud of his son for having the courage of his convictions, despite whatever blowback he might receive on the ice. Colin is the lone member of the Lions’ JV team to wear a mask during game play.
“There’s two different camps on masks, as you know,” Kevin Dadey said. “We try to take a safe approach to it. I’ll commend him for doing it. I think it’s brave to do it and not be intimidated by (others).”
Kevin Dadey allows that it’s been difficult watching his son play some games on the LiveBarn streaming service, but whenever he catches himself lamenting the strangeness of the season — or he hears other parents express their frustrations — he recites one thing.
“I say, ‘Hey, this is for the kids,’ ” he said. “I’m just happy for them to get to play. Would I rather see it live? Yes, but anything we can do to keep everybody safe and keep the season going, I’m all for.”
And as a board member, you could argue that optimism is part of the gig in a year like this.
“It’s tough sometimes to get these kids (to conform),” Kevin Dadey said. “It’s tough when you have people with different beliefs, but this is what they have to do, wearing masks in the locker rooms, coaches (wearing them) on the bench.
“Everybody’s fine with it. I think people have made more of it than it is. (Colin) has actually been playing better with the mask on.”
Added Frank Sedlak from Chartiers Valley: “There’s been a lot of additional demands to the gig, I guess you could say, but there are a lot of people dealing with a lot worse. Whatever we can do to make it happen. I feel so bad for the seniors from last spring. I certainly wouldn’t want to see that in the sports that are actively going on. I try to stress to the organization that everyone has to do their little part.”
No slight to the parents and players, but coaches might have it the toughest, all things considered. Not exactly the ideal environment to build productive routines and habits.
Central Catholic bench boss Bill Connelly was going to have a challenging season regardless, with plenty of youth on his roster while trying to rebound from a last-place Class AAA finish in 2019-20. Throw in a few game postponements and approximately 15 lost practices, and the Vikings’ 3-7-2 mark to this point doesn’t look so shabby.
“I’ve been really proud of our team,” Connelly said. “We’ve always stressed that the lows don’t get too low, and we don’t get too excited for the positive moments. With many things changing in their social and school environment, disruptions here and there, I’ve been really impressed with how our team has managed our season throughout.”
With less time together than a normal year, Connelly said the Vikings’ coaching staff has conducted more remote video sessions, sometimes drawing from other leagues and teams, since there’s less game tape to mine for insights.
Back at Peters Township, coach Tingle has tried to compensate for a decreased number of practice windows by providing a weekly voluntary ‘stick time’ open-ice session, in which players can go one-on-one with assistant coaches and/or scrimmage amongst themselves.
As for the games, Tingle said he’s spent more time going over system details and other fundamentals with players, both in the locker room and on the bench.
“There’s a lot more drawing up and discussion than we normally do (on game days),” Tingle said. “Normally I’d say, ‘Make sure we execute our forecheck,’ now I’m showing guys what I mean by that.”
Fortunately for Tingle and his staff, the players themselves have apparently recognized the urgency of the situation by being more engaged mentally.
“Overall, the guys really want to do well,” Tingle said. “They’ve been more attentive, probably because there’s less time they’ve heard from us. They’re not stupid. They know time’s limited here. We talk about it all the time, ‘This could be the last game.’ Who knows? You have to think that way.”
Controlling what you can and accepting what you can’t. A prudent lesson for any year, but especially one chock full of contact tracing, physical distancing and that most familiar of COVID-19 clichés, an abundance of caution.
In the end, though, barring something unforeseen, the regular season will be completed and the playoffs will be competed. Is there anything more important than that?
“The PIHL has done a great job,” Tingle said. “A huge effort on their part. The only thing you can plan on is that plans are going to change. You’ve got to keep on being flexible. Go with the flow.
“Put that out of your mind and let’s go.”