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Youngstown State Hockey on the Verge of Breakout Year

BOARDMAN, OHIO - The history of the Youngstown State University hockey club is a success in and of itself.

After beginning two seasons ago as an American Collegiate Hockey Association Division III team, the Penguins moved up to Division I last year, and even knocked off some highly ranked squads.

And although early season adversity has the 2007-2008 campaign off to a 3-6-2 start, the Penguins are now on the cusp of even greater things.

"We can go as far as we want to go," says YSU head coach Rocky Russo. "We gave them some time off, and when they came back, they seemed refreshed and they had a whole different mindset. Everyone is looking forward to the coming weeks."

Part of the new mindset includes changing the way the team approaches each game.

"Initially we came in thinking we could outscore opponents - that we could just run-and-gun," Russo said. "But now we've started to cling to the fact that we have to play good defense to be successful."

"You can never work hard enough on the defensive zone," adds Russo as he explains what the team needs to improve upon the most.

"Our forwards have done a better job of being more responsible for their assignments in the defensive zone, but we still need to bear down. It is something that we are going to continue to work on, week in and week out."

Keeping the team focused through adversity begins with the team captains. Last season's ACHA Rookie of the Year, sophomore forward Mike Poljak, is the Penguins' captain. After Poljak suffered a concussion in early October, however, it's been up to assistant captains Zac Kusek, Kevin Pawlos and Matt Jacob to take the reigns.

When the team has been successful, it is due in large part to their goaltending. Gary Biggs, originally slated as the Penguins third-string netminder, walked on to the team this season, was given an opportunity, and ran with it.

"He got a chance because John Snyder got hurt early in the year," Russo explains. "Gary has just been phenomenal since."

Another bright spot in the line up is the play of freshman forward Jordan D'Atri. In his breakout game, D'Atri had two goals in a big 6-3 win against Mercyhurst two weekends ago.

"As the season has progressed, he has just gotten better and better," Russo says about D'Atri. "I have been able to put him on the ice in more situations and he's been a real positive for us."

Additionally the Penguins have inserted a "neutral zone trap" into their game plan in order to help limit the number of chances their opponents get through center ice.

"It's not the most fun type of hockey to watch, but our guys have really embraced it," said Russo. "We've done an excellent job through the neutral zone and have really been able to pick our opportunities to score."

As a member of College Hockey Mid-America, a league within the ACHA, the Penguins are excited about their prospects of making it to the National Tournament this year in Rochester, N.Y.

"We want to finish above .500 - but if we can win the league during the regular season and get that automatic bid to Nationals - that's our goal right now," Russo says.

With still five months left in the season, and key names either coming back into the line-up, or joining the team soon, the players recognize that the year is far from over.

"We know we are on the verge of getting guys back from some health issues." says Russo. "We've got some good players coming in here at the (semester) break. There is still a lot of hockey left, and there is a good chance to win the league."

The Penguins next home game is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 10. The puck drops at 7 p.m. at the Ice Zone in Boardman. The Youngstown State University Hockey Team is sponsored by the B.J. Alan Company - Phantom Fireworks, located in Youngstown, Ohio.