With a little over a minute remaining in a recent game, State College’s Michael Moscone swiped the puck and raced toward the net on a breakaway to score the game-tying goal.
The Little Lion immediately broke to the corner of the rink with his teammates in hot pursuit, and one player after another leaped up to slam their shoulders into the glass in celebration. On the other side of the glass, about a dozen pre-teen fans screamed and cheered with delight. A few seconds later, Moscone scored again and then exchanged high-fives with the boys by the gate.
Scott Balboni could not be happier with that scene, watching the future of the program with present day, a part of the rebuilding process.
The first-year coach may be a little overqualified for the club program that is not a PIAA sport, but the celebration scene at Pegula Ice Arena for that game against Johnstown, not to mention a stirring comeback victory, makes it all worthwhile.
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“We want to make something the local kids want to be involved in,” Balboni said. “The more I can get them involved in the community, the more we can get the community to come support the program — that makes it a symbiotic relationship for everybody.”
Balboni, a partner at Frost and Conn Insurance in State College, hasn’t been coaching locally since 2011, but he knows the game pretty well. He was an assistant coach for Joe Battista for nine seasons with the Penn State Icers club program, watching them win multiple ACHA national championships. Balboni was the Icers’ head coach for five seasons until the university announced it would be elevating the men’s and women’s programs to NCAA Division I status. Guy Gadowsky was hired to coach the team in the final year of transition from club to full varsity.
Balboni also was coaching with USA hockey. He was an assistant coach at the 2009 and 2011 World University Games, then was the head coach in 2013, guiding the U.S. to a fourth-place finish.
“We all have a tremendous amount of respect for him and we’re really dedicated to winning this year,” said State College captain Braden Wandrisco, with their team off to a 6-1-1 start to the season.
While the level of play may not be what he saw with the Icers or during international competition, Balboni has been enjoying the process.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s totally different than the collegiate level. But it’s the same that it’s hockey and it’s X’s and O’s. It’s different because these kids are a lot younger and they do things at a different pace. But they all work hard; they all want to learn. They’re all excited to be here and be involved.”
About a decade ago, State College was competitive with some of the top teams in western Pennsylvania. They were a member of the PIHL, and were in the playoffs for the Penguins Cup. As the skill level diminished, State College dropped from a AAA-level team down to open, and is now in its third season as a member of the Laurel Mountain Hockey League. Travel to games is much shorter, but most league members have enrollments much smaller than State College.
The club’s board of directors wanted to see the program revived, so they approached Balboni and Gary Stidsen, who coached the team for 15 years until 2011.
“The Board was looking for experienced coaches,” said Stidsen, now an assistant coach. “The youth program didn’t get many players to come through. Now a lot more younger kids are playing.”
Credit for that comes from the opening of Pegula Ice Arena and a surge in numbers at the youngest levels. The fruits of that part of the process will start to show up next season — there is a large class of eighth-graders ready to join the team.
The process also involves teammates promoting the program to their their classmates. School announcements and flyers help spread the word, players wear their jerseys to class just like football players, and they went as a team to a State College girls’ soccer game earlier in the fall.
“We’re trying to get more students to come out (to games),” said Andy Wilson, an assistant coach and the program’s student advisor. “We’re trying to build it, but we need to get the word out.”
The Little Lions usually have one or two games each week, but often just one practice unless Balboni feels the team should show up for a second session — often at 5:30 a.m. With such limited time, the coaches break them into small groups to help teach the kids.
“We’re lucky to be able to have that right now,” said Balboni, who also has introduced video reviews and dry-land work to help make up for the low ice time availability. “I think that’s part of the reason we’re getting better fast.”
At least now the team travels to road games on a coach bus, so the players are together more as a group. When Stidsen was last coaching, it was usually a caravan of parents driving cars on all those trips to the Pittsburgh area.
The players like the direction Balboni has their team heading, but as friendly and warmhearted as their new coach may be, they also know they will be taken to task if they are not following his leadership.
“We’re working a lot harder, skating a lot harder than we were last year and the structure is pretty good this year,” Wandrisco said. “We’ve definitely been stronger back-checking. It’s all a part of us working harder this year.”