Tampa Trio Finds Home In Atlanta as ‘Techmates’

By STEVE LEE

Atlanta and Tampa are linked by professional sports leagues, but for some there is a much deeper connection.

The Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning are Southeast Division rivals in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference, while the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers occupy the National Football League’s NFC South Division.

Georgia Tech forward Drew Baker, left, poses with Jesuit High School (Tampa) coach and Yellow Jacket alum Mark Kroeten, along with
current ‘Jackets Nick Amore and A.J. Piplica.

The ties between those cities, however, go beyond that for three ice hockey players who have taken their game to the next level. Like many talented players, Drew Baker, A.J. Piplica and Nick Amore met in youth leagues and played together on travel teams. They became teammates at Tampa Jesuit High and now don the gold and black of Georgia Tech.

 “We’re kind of the feeder school to Georgia Tech,” said Mark Kroeten, who also played hockey for the Yellow Jackets (Class of 1986) and coached the three Tampa wingers at Jesuit.

A feeder school might be stretching it a bit, nonetheless Kroeten has a point. Other than the seven in-state players on the current 22-man roster, no city boasts more Yellow Jackets than the Tampa trio, who also are engineering majors.

 “It feels good to know that they’re at Georgia Tech and in the same program that I played in; keeping it alive,” Kroeten said.

Actually, one among the three has missed the first half of the season. Piplica, a sophomore, spent the fall semester as an intern in aerospace engineering at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and plans to rejoin the team in January.

Admittedly, Piplica misses spending time on the ice with his teammates from Tampa. As a student first and athlete second, however, he appears to have his priorities in order.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Piplica said of the internship in Texas. “What comes first is my education.”

Baker was more succinct, saying, “School’s first, but hockey’s a close second.”

Added Kroeten, “They’re all pretty bright.” 

Like the others, Amore does not envision any problems with Piplica fitting in upon his return to the team.

 “We basically know, hockey-wise, everything about each other,” said Amore, a freshman left winger. “It makes it a lot easier to play.”

Piplica and Amore lack the experience and success exhibited so far by Baker, a junior right wing and productive scorer. Through Georgia Tech’s first 12 games this season, Baker had four goals and five assists, good enough for second in team scoring.
           
Baker had an immediate impact at Georgia Tech, tallying 13 goals and 18 assists as a freshman before a slight drop-off last season to eight goals and 10 assists.

With totals like that, some would think Baker is well-known on campus. Not so, Baker pointed out, noting that his particular sport does not attract throngs of fans like the Georgia Tech football and basketball teams.

“I’m totally satisfied,” Baker said, shrugging off the lack of notoriety. “I don’t need anyone to recognize me for playing hockey.”

In October, the Tampa trio returned to Florida for Georgia Tech’s game against South Florida played at the St. Pete Times Forum, home of the Lightning.

Piplica, who took a break from his internship in Houston to skate for that game, described the night before that game against South Florida as nervewracking.

“It was worse than Christmas Eve,” Piplica said. “I was really excited.”

For Baker, he said coming back to play in Tampa as a collegian, was “really, really special to me. I didn’t care about being the visiting team, but as long as we got the W.”

The Yellow Jackets won that Oct. 14 contest, 6-5 and regardless of the season’s outcome or the individual players’ statistics, all three describe being college teammates as the experience of a lifetime.

For Amore, choosing to study engineering at Georgia Tech became an easy decision because his friends were there.

“When you go to school and you know somebody, it makes the transition a lot easier,” he said.

Added Baker, “I’m actually in a fraternity right now, but I’d say I’m closer to the guys in hockey.”

Aside from their parents, no one is more proud of the Tampa trio than Kroeten, who summed it up by saying, “They’ve all come a long way.”

 

 
 
 
 
 

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