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Franklin Regional, Plum products to compete for national title with Mid-State Mustangs

Michael Love
MSMidStateMustangs040518
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The Mid State Mustangs 18U AA hockey team, with Franklin Regional graduate Jamie Mauro, Plum graduate Nolan Puhala and Franklin Regional seniors Tommy Rafferty and Jason Haines, will play at USA Hockey nationals starting April 5, 2018, in Green Bay, Wisc.

Jamie Mauro graduated from Franklin Regional last June after helping to lead the Panthers to back-to-back Penguin Cup Class A championships.

He transitioned from high school hockey to the college level on Slippery Rock’s Division I club team.

While producing what he felt was a successful first collegiate season this past fall and winter, Mauro also retained his youth hockey eligibility and split his ice time with the Mid-State Mustangs 18U AA squad.

Mid-State will take part in USA Hockey’s Tier II 18U National Championships set to begin Thursday in Green Bay, Wis.

“It’s worked out really well,” said Mauro, a first-year player on the Mid-State 18U team with 2017 Plum graduate Nolan Puhala and Franklin Regional seniors Justin Haines and Tommy Rafferty.

“I love hockey, so it’s been great being able to play all these games,” Mauro said. “I’m used to playing on two teams from high school and amateurs. All these guys are.”

The Mustangs punched their tickets to nationals by going 4-0 at the Pennsylvania 18U Tier 2 state tournament in the Mid-Am District the weekend of March 17.

“Everything just clicked together at the right time,” said Mauro, who played one year for Mid-State at the 14U level. “I knew a lot of these guys. I’m pretty sure I played with (Tyler) Barker and (Ethan) Clabaugh, my linemates now, when we were in 14s. We just kind of jumped right back at it.”

Like Mauro, Puhala, a standout on the Plum Class AA title team in 2017, advanced to play college hockey. He joined the Robert Morris team at the American College Hockey Association level and then the Mid-State team around Thanksgiving.

“With the new guys coming in like myself, Jamie, Tommy and Jason, there were fights for spots in the lineup,” said Puhala, who will play at nationals for the first time. “Everybody has worked hard to fill their own role. It all progressed to where we are right now.”

Mid-State begins play at nationals at 6 p.m. Thursday against the Springfield Rifles. The team will face the Littleton Hawks at 4 p.m. Friday and conclude pool play at 4 p.m. Saturday against the Quakers.

The top two teams from each of the four pools of four teams advance to Sunday’s quarterfinals.

Both the quarterfinals and semifinals are Sunday, with the championship game Monday.

“There are a few guys that haven’t been to nationals yet, and then there are the guys that have been there the past couple of years,” Puhala said. “Just hearing all the stories makes me really excited.”

Mauro, Puhala, Rafferty and Haines are the only PIHL products on the Mid-State team, which features several players who were on last year’s Mustangs 18U team and a half dozen others who came up from the 16U squad.

The Mustangs hope to capture a Tier II 18U national title for the first time since 2014.

Because of other commitments, in hockey and academics, the full Mid-State squad, coach Brian Kurtz said, didn’t come together in full until a tournament in York on Presidents Day weekend.

Kurtz said that tournament was a good lead-in to what the team accomplished at Tier II districts.

“It was a challenge to get the team together and create that continuity among the lines,” said Kurtz, also the coach at Franklin Regional. “At the same time, with the talent of these kids and the familiarity some have with each other, there wasn’t really that sense of too much unfamiliar territory. We had good practices between the (Presidents Day) tournament and states to kind of tweak things that we needed to work on.”

Puhala said the district tournament was a total team effort.

“We played a whole 51 minutes each game,” he said. “We were clicking the whole tournament. Everybody gave it their all every chance they had. They had to make their mark and prove themselves when they had the chance.”

Kurtz said the team has succeeded with good balance from a skilled set of forwards to a solid defensive corps. The local products, he said, have brought their own unique contributions to the team.

“Jamie really improved his game playing D-I club hockey,” Kurtz said. “We reaped some of the benefits of that. It took Nolan a little bit of time to find his niche in our lineup, but he has really excelled and has been a tremendous addition.”

Kurtz said Rafferty and Haines were comfortable right from the start as the Mid-State system is similar to the one they play at Franklin Regional.

“Tommy really shored up our blue line. He is one of my top two defensemen on the team,” Kurtz said. “Jason is my top penalty killer. He does a lot of things that maybe don’t show up on the scoreboard or in the stats, but he is a very good two-way player.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @Mlove_Trib.

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