GL's Ruffner clears puck

Greater Latrobe’s Lane Ruffner (75) prepares to clear the puck from his own end as Josh Coffee (87), goaltender Greg Irons and Dalton Lute follow the play during the team’s recent PIHL Class AA semifinal-round playoff game against Hempfield Area at Robert Morris University’s Island Sports Center. After defeating Hempfield Area, the IceCats’ season is on hold because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Greater Latrobe hockey team’s season — along with everything else in the state — remains in limbo because of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean the IceCats, and several of their standouts, didn’t enjoy a historic season to this point.

Greater Latrobe was scheduled to play Baldwin in the PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup championship game. The IceCats advanced to the championship for the third time in eight seasons and the sixth time in 13 seasons overall. They have won four Class AA Penguins Cup championships — and Class AA Pennsylvania Cup state titles — since 2008.

The IceCats defeated Hempfield Area, 3-2, during the semifinals of the PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup playoffs a day before the league decided to postpone its end-of-season tournament because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Additionally, Greater Latrobe was picked to participate in the 2020 USHA High School Hockey National Tournament in Mansfield, Texas. The event was scheduled to take place from March 26-30, but has been canceled.

“It was a great honor to be picked to represent Western Pennsylvania hockey,” Greater Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “It was something we really looked forward to throughout the year.”

Werner said the IceCats learned of the honor around the beginning of 2020, as Greater Latrobe was picked to represent Class AA, while Ringgold was the Single-A selection and Upper St. Clair was slated to represent Class AAA.

“We really built our game around it and played extra games, tournaments and different opponents,” Werner said. “It’s understandable why they canceled, but it was something we were really looking forward to and really working toward throughout the season.”

Werner said the IceCats learned the tournament was canceled while riding the bus after their Penguins Cup semifinal-round victory against Hempfield Area.

“We really wanted to do our part to represent the area,” Werner said. “It gave us extra motivation to stand out. It kind of stunk how it all played out.”

Two of the Greater Latrobe varsity players, captain Lane Ruffner and assistant captain Alex Walker, also competed for the Tier 1 18U Esmark Stars AAA hockey team that captured the Mid-Am District Tournament championship on March 8 at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

Esmark Stars is the oldest Tier 1 hockey organization in Western Pennsylvania and celebrated its 35 season this year.

Esmark is part of the North American Prospects Hockey League (NAPHL), which is a key feeder system into the North American Hockey League (NAHL), one of the top junior hockey leagues in the United States.

Ruffner, who has been part of the Esmark organization for the past eight seasons, signed a tender agreement to play for Texas-based Wichita Falls, an expansion team in the NAHL.

Ruffner captured his third straight Mid-Am District Championship with Esmark Stars, qualifying him for his third USA Hockey Tier 1 National Tournament. Ruffner was part of the 16U team in 2017-18, the 18U that won in 2018-19 and the current Esmark Stars championship club.

Walker played his first year with the 18U Esmark Stars this past season. He has played within the Esmark organization the past three years and he’s a key offensive contributor.

In January, Walker and Ruffner were both selected as an All-Star in the NAPHL, in which they participated in the 18U All-Star game at Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minn.

Walker scored 25 goals and 76 points in 57 games with Esmark Stars this season. Ruffner had four goals and 33 points in 60 games.

At Greater Latrobe, Walker has 26 goals and 82 points in his last 31 games. Walker, whose 28-game scoring streak was snapped in the regular-season finale, has 19 goals and 63 points in his last 22 games played.

Esmark earned the right to participate at the 2020 USA Hockey Tier 1 National Tournament in Rochester, Mich., but that was also canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 18U Esmark Stars ended its season ranked among the top 20 in the country.

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