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December 18, 2013

Veteran leadership, cohesiveness and contributions has Athens hockey unbeaten

By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer

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Veteran leadership, cohesiveness and contributions has Athens hockey unbeaten
Mark Zielinski (11) tries to clear the puck during Athens’ win against Troy. The Red Hawks were 7-0-1 at press time.

TROY — An unbeaten record sat on the line, and Jeff Merola stood on his head to defend it.

At least that’s what his brother, Brad, said — and it’d be tough to argue his assertion.

Facing 47 shots in a Saturday afternoon affair against a top rival, Jeff Merola made 46 saves.

The offense in front of him did just enough — and the Troy Athens hockey team snuck past Troy High 2-1.

“I’m a little surprised, I guess. At the same time, I’m not sitting here with my jaw dropped or anything,” Athens coach Joe Barone said of his team and the season that’s transpired so far. After defeating Troy Dec. 14, the Red Hawks were 7-0-1. “We’ve played real well so far. We’ve caught some breaks, and we’ve taken care of business when we’ve needed to.”

The win against the crosstown rival was, by far, the biggest, so far.

Troy entered the game with a 7-0-0 record, and as Barone admitted, “they out-shot us and really carried the play.”

But, as has been the case all season, Athens found a way. And for a team that went 7-15-3 last year, the potential for this winter is through the roof.

“Basically, the whole team has come together to be one unit,” said four-year veteran Kosta Karabetsos. “I think in the past, we had teams that were divided by grades or whatever. This team is much more together in the way we do things, and it’s shown on the ice.”

“I guess I’m a little surprised that we’re unbeaten,” Brad Merola said. He notched the game winner against Troy with a short-handed tally late in the second period. “At the same time, this whole group has clicked from the start. We can come at you from so many different angles.”

Barone was also quick to credit the cohesiveness of the team.

“This is probably the tightest locker room I’ve seen in the past six or seven years,” he said.

Still, plenty of teams get along with one another but that doesn’t always translate to wins.

The other ingredients for success are plentiful, too.

The Red Hawks are a veteran team, with 13 of the 17 players in the junior or senior class.

The contributions have come from everywhere, whether it be an offensive group averaging nearly six goals per game, a defensive unit that’s allowed minimal pressure on goal, or Merola in net, who through eight games had a 1.57 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage.

The team has also gotten some outside help, with a handful of former travel players joining the ranks.

Brandon Goodes came on board this year and leads the team with eight goals and 10 assists.

Griffin Rocheleau is also new and is third in scoring with three goals and 10 assists.

“I think the new guys have really been big for us,” Brad Merola said.  “We have seven new guys to the team who jumped right into things.”

The results speak for themselves.

They’ve also fueled some expectations the team set before the season began.

“This is a league we’re going after,” Barone said. “That’s what we’ve talked about. It won’t be easy, with teams like Royal Oak and Troy and Birmingham playing so well. But right now, it’s nice to be able to say we’re one of those teams.”

“We’ll take things one game at a time, but before the season started, we talked about winning an (Oakland Activities Association) White Division title,” Karabetsos said. Athens was 3-0-1 and alone in first in the White. “If we keep a level head, that’s something this team is capable of. Then, we’ll see what happens come playoff time, but we feel like we can make a pretty good run.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mike Moore at mmoore@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1038. Twitter Follow Mike on Twitter.