By Matt Popchock
For the second year in a row, head coach Art “The Judge” McQuillan is taking his Hilltoppers on a long bus ride that, win, lose, or draw, will be worth the trip.
Still, they’d like to have an easier time cracking the goose egg than they did last winter, when they took home a 5-0 loss at the hands of eventual Pennsylvania Cup champion Mars.
In any event, Westmont Hilltop will play with a purpose at South Park Ice Rink Friday night at 6:00 when trying to extend its unbeaten streak to nine games in a unique and inspirational event: the 2012 UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Outdoor Charity Series.
Its opponent, Quaker Valley, is trying to extend a hot streak of its own. The Quakers have won seven in a row, the second-longest active run in Class A behind Mars’ 8-0 start, and the Quakers know a thing or two about getting embarrassed by the Planets under the stars. Mars routed QV 7-0 at North Park Ice Rink in January 2010, the last time Kevin Quinn’s team participated in this annual event.
In fact, this ongoing winning streak began immediately after a 4-3 loss to the Planets on Halloween night.
Bethel Park head hockey coach Jim McVay, along with several public officials, helped organize an “Outdoor Charity Classic” game with arch-rival Mount Lebanon toward the end of the 2007-08 regular season after taking his team to the inaugural NHL Winter Classic in Buffalo between the Penguins and Sabres.
McVay and longtime Mount Lebanon coach Paul Taibi agreed to give all proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, an expression of solidarity by McVay and then-Mount Lebanon defenseman Chris Cummings, each of whom are diabetics. That February 2008 game was a great success, and it spawned multiple outdoor games the league used to raise money for various charities.
Westmont Hilltop and Quaker Valley will have the honor of opening this year’s Outdoor Charity Series, which consists of four regular season PIHL games. Friday’s nightcap, getting underway around 8:00, features Mount Lebanon and Pittsburgh Central Catholic, a pair of Class AAA teams that led their respective sections entering January. Next Friday the scene shifts to North Park Ice Rink, where Moon and North Hills of AA-Sec. 1 will have the early game, and AAA-Sec. 2 rivals North Allegheny and Seneca Valley will meet in the finale.
Once again, Westmont Hilltop (and, this time, Quaker Valley) will donate all of tonight’s ticket sales to the UPMC Hillman Center for Brain Cancer Research. The Hilltoppers and Quakers will play in memory of Dave “Ziggy” Ziegler, a pro shop owner who served both the Johnstown and Pittsburgh hockey communities for many years before succumbing to brain cancer in August 2010.
Even before the opening faceoff, the bar has already been set pretty high; Westmont Hilltop and Mars raised $18,000 from last year’s outdoor game.
Last season Corey Schafer was the proverbial straw that stirred the drink for Westmont Hilltop, but part of the Hilltoppers’ recent success has been the addition of balance to their firepower. Five different players have reached double figures in points, and six different players have registered at least five goals.
The name McQuillan is synonymous with that program in more ways than one. Noah McQuillan, who also skates with the Johnstown Jets amateur club, leads the team with nine goals and 18 points, and Cullen McQuillan has scored seven points in nine games as a sophomore. Some think Cullen’s ceiling might be even higher than Noah’s.
Westmont Hilltop is tied for third in Class A with 57 goals. Kittanning, the team with which the Hilltoppers are tied, trails Westmont by just three points in Section 3, which underscores the importance of this game.
But Westmont Hilltop’s improvements on the back end have been just as critical to the team’s success. Cullen McQuillan plays well at both ends, defenseman/captain Zak Kindya has played responsibly, and has seven goals–three on the power play–and 14 points, and goaltender Adam Ayre has picked up his game to lead Class A starters with a 1.48 GAA. He ranks third in save percentage (.903).
Ayre’s counterpart, Doug Revak, is one of three netminders who has stabilized a defensive corps that protects the blue paint very well. As a team, Quaker Valley has given up just 11 goals, which is tied for the fewest in the classification, and Revak enters this contest with a 4-1 mark, a 1.74 GAA (3rd among regulars), and a .906 save percentage (2nd).
The Quakers back-check with fury, and their team size and speed are lethal weapons on the front end of the ice too. With a Class A-best 70 goals, they’re another team that has done a better job spreading their offensive riches this season. Junior Ryan Dickson and senior Kevin Kenny are among the top ten scorers in the classification–24 and 21 points, respectively–and they share the team lead in goals with 11.
Furthermore, it’s up to Westmont Hilltop to stay disciplined on defense. Dickson and Kenny have netted four power play goals apiece, and Quaker Valley, with 19 total PPG’s, leads Class A in that category. An x-facor is Jayson Lottes, a member of the Junior Penguins travel team, who skates fluidly and knows how to contribute both ways.
It’s a battle of two playoff-bound teams, and it’s also a battle of wits between two of the most successful hockey coaches in western Pennsylvania. All in all, it’s hard to ask for a better lid-lifter for this event.
Be sure to check back with the “Mr. High School Sports” blog later this weekend for more coverage of the 2012 UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Outdoor Charity Series. We’ll have a recap of this game, along with live updates during the Mount Lebanon-Pittsburgh Central Catholic contest.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)