Johnston leading Twinsburg ice hockey to .500 record

Steve Batko

Mike Johnston knew he had some big shoes to fill in the Twinsburg High ice hockey program.

When veteran Tiger head coach Jim DiRosa stepped down, it created a large void in the program.

Twinsburg captain Andrew Henderson fights for a face off during the Tigers' 10-1 to Lakewood Saturday at Winterhurst.

Through 10-plus years of work and service, DiRosa had done so much for the Twinsburg program and its athletes through the years.

Enter Johnston and a few other coaches from the Tiger system.

Johnston was named the Twinsburg head coach after serving as an assistant coach under DiRosa last season.

“My focus for this first year is to develop the new players and pass on my knowledge to better our veteran players,” explained Johnston. “I will work hard and continue to develop the program that Jim DiRosa spent so much time and effort in building the last ten years.”

Besides Twinsburg, Johnston’s most recent coaching position was at Case Western Reserve University where he was the head coach.

“We were in the College Hockey East division, which included universities in western Pennsylvania - from Edinboro to Johnstown, and it was the first year that CWRU was in that division and we were one point shy of making the playoffs,” said Johnston. “It was my first year as head coach and the first year in that division, so I was pleased with that accomplishment.”

Prior to coaching CWRU, Johnston spent many years coaching in the Initiation Program, which created interest in the sport in Sylvania and taught kids how to play hockey from scratch.

Twinsburg's assistant coaching staff includes veterans Rocky Bennardo, Scott Craig and Dave Cannon.

“What I found most enjoyable about the IP program was having young players come out with little to no experience in skating or hockey and being able to help them develop the skills and confidence to skate, play hockey, and enjoy the sport,” explained Johnston.

An impressive graduating class will be missed, including Travis Poznik, Antonio Bennardo, Zak Filler, and Nick Whitelaw. Bennardo received all-league honorable mention in 2019.

Twinsburg (4-4) opened the year after a pre-season and early season pause due to COVID-19.

Navigating through the ebb and flow of scheduling has been a unique challenge that the Tigers have worked hard at.

“We have played seven games in the last week and a half and this is a lot of hockey with a short recovery time, but the team has been doing well to grind through,” said Johnston.

Twinsburg has some experience back.

Returning players include senior center Andrew Henderson, senior forward Ian Lashua, senior defender Colby Smith, senior forward Matt Bierworth, senior defender Chase Lowy, junior goalie Mark Schroeder, junior wing Cody Preston, sophomore defender Jackson Smith, junior wing Sarah Zammikiel, sophomore defender Aidan Johnston, and sophomore wing Sean Shirokov.

Early on this winter, the Tigers are looking to stress fundamentals and build depth within their lines.

Top newcomers, according to coach, include senior wing Brian Nesic, senior wing Anthony Sciarabba, sophomore forward Arianna Bennardo, sophomore wing Rachel Zammikiel, freshman defender Max Coleman, freshman wing Dominic Mistur, and freshman wing Vani Modl.

Defense is always a focus as Schroeder gained valuable experience in 2019.

“Mark has been having an outstanding season so far, standing tall between the pipes,” pointed out Johnston. “He has been averaging 25 saves per game.”

“Anthony (Sciarabba) came back to the program for his senior year and has been a standout so far this season,” issued Johnston. “Shirokov and freshman Dominic Mistur are line mates with Anthony. They have been tallying goals and assists.”

“We have also had strong play from our captains Andrew Henderson, Ian Lashua, and Colby Smith,” added Johnston.

Tiger players may have different roles while some athletes are playing in different spots on the ice at times.

Twinsburg has received great offensive production from its veterans, but also great help from newcomers in Sciarabba, Mistur, Nesic, Arianna Bennardo, and others.

Lashua, Henderson and Shirokov had great experience on the ice from last year.

Mistur had an exciting game-winning goal with 2:19 left in a spirited win over Bay Village.

“Cody Preston has been exceptional as a forward and playing the defensive position when needed,” offered a thrilled Johnston, of yet another player with solid experience.

“In his first season of playing hockey, Brian Nesic has scored two goals and Ariana Bennardo has also scored her first goal this season,” he added.

“Other contributors have been seniors Matt Bierworth and Chase Lowy; junior Sara Zammikiel; sophomores Aidan Johnston and Jackson Smith, plus freshmen Rachel Zammikiel, Vani Modi and Max Coleman, who has been a solid player on the defensive side.”

Twinsburg’s home contests are held at the Dan Kostel Recreation facility in Garfield Heights.

The Tigers lost 10-1 to Lakewood at Winterhurst Ice Rink Saturday.

“We played a tough Lakewood team that capitalized on all of their opportunities and it was a physical game,” noted the coach.

Mistur scored the lone goal assisted by Sciarabba and Shirokov in the third period.

“We had solid play by seniors with Bierworth, Nesic, Lowy, and our captains Ian Lashua, Andrew Henderson, and Colby Smith,” said Johnston. “Preston had a solid game on defense; he got us out of a lot of tough spots.”

“Despite the score, Mark Schroeder had a great outing with 30 saves,” he added. “The team was also supported by Coleman, Sarah Zammikiel, Arianna Bennardo, and Rachel Zammikiel.”

Smith, Preston and Coleman have worked hard on the Tiger’s defense, along with a host of others.

Johnston liked the way his club fired back against Lyndhurst Brush in an early comeback win and late victory over Bay.

“We played a very good team in Bay Village and it was a nail biter until Dominic Mistur scored the winning goal,” said Johnston, who saw his team explode for five of its seven goals in the second period in a second game against Brush.

“I thought we were evenly matched in the first period against CVCA, which has a very good program in the division above us,” added Johnston, who as a player, attended prospect camps for professional-level hockey and elected to focus on academics.

Sciarabba tallied a pair of goals in a recent 7-2 loss against Cleveland Benedictine, which was led by goalie Brandon Jordan, who stopped 30 of the 32 Tiger shots on goal.

“Benedictine has a deep bench and we had lots of opportunities to make the game closer,” offered Johnston. “They had a strong goalie in Jordan. It was a very physical game and we hope to play them again before the season is over.”

Twinsburg has a 4-1 record in the Blue South Division of the Greater Cleveland High School Hockey League.

“This year we are playing in the Blue South division, which is a more appropriate division for our program,” said Johnston.