By Matt Popchock


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We’re just hours away from the ambient sounds of another Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League season, the 13th since the WPIHL and SHIHL merged to form western Pennsylvania’s first unified league.

The scraping sound of metal against ice…the clattering of wooden sticks…the spraying of snow…

…and the collective sigh of relief from Class AA brought on by the news that Peters Township won’t be playing there this year.

Don’t relax just yet, boys. The top seed from the 2011 Penguins Cup Playoffs may have moved up, but the best team in the classification, the team that outworked and upended Peters for the title, and then outlasted Council Rock South for state gold, appears to be the team to beat once again.

It wasn’t always that way for veteran PIHL coach Kevin Zielmanski. For years, his Bishop Canevin clubs were close, but no cigar. Now, you might say the humidor is no longer empty.

He and the Crusaders filled in with the Penguins Cup, the first for the program since 1993 and sixth in its history, just one week before capturing their fourth Pennsylvania Cup all-time, ending a dry spell that dated back to 1989.

They begin their title defense Monday night against Plum at the Valley Sports Complex in New Kensington, and Randy Unger, the freshman who dethroned three-time state champion Latrobe with his dramatic goal in overtime of the Penguins Cup Semifinals, is one of a number of key players who return.

Could that goal have been an omen of a new order in Class AA? Unger also scored an overtime goal just days ago against Canon-McMillan to give Canevin the championship of the St. Margaret’s Fall Face-Off, an annual exhibition tournament that precedes the start of the new PIHL season and features some of western PA’s brightest stars.

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Meanwhile, Matt Walsh, who finished fifth in the classification with 22 goals and 51 points, is also back, coming off his own postseason heroics, while Chadd Lounder also had a strong showing in that aforementioned St. Margaret’s tournament, and Peter Karney also gives gravitas to the Crusaders’ offense.

With a strong blue line spearheaded by Marc Slomiany and Matt Bilski, the only looming question mark for the Crusaders exists between the pipes. If Nikita Meskin can be a capable successor to Zack Daley, Bishop Canevin might very well find itself back on CONSOL Energy Center ice.

Latrobe has a lot of work to do to prove last March was just a bump in the road for that program. Dan Ridder has voluntarily stepped down as head coach, and Eugene Ray takes over a smaller roster that sustained some heavy blows from graduation. Josh Singley, who contributed 18 goals and 49 points in 2010-11, is ready to be a leader, and Shane Brudnok can build off a brilliant campaign that saw him turn in a 1.86 GAA and four shutouts, so the ‘Cats should be competitive. Whether those other forwards can handle an increased workload will determine whether they remain contenders.

Chartiers Valley will be Canevin’s most legitimate threat in Section 2 after a pleasantly surprising 2010-11 campaign that saw the Colts reach the Penguins Cup Semifinals. Lou Biancanello, the former USC assistant, has done a fine job upgrading that program, which is led by Justin Sabilla, who notched 34 goals and 63 points last winter, and could make a run at the Class AA scoring title a year after coming in second. Noah Stevenson is a rising star in net, though the real key for the Colts will be how well Sabilla’s teammates can support him offensively.

Section 3 has received quite the makeover, which, if nothing else, should make for an interesting playoff push. Franklin Regional, which is trying to erase the awful memory of a winless season just a couple seasons after earning Class AA silver, has moved there from Section 4, and Kiski Area, last year’s Chiefs Cup champion in the Open Class, is another newcomer. Exciting senior Troy McAteer, who led Gateway with 24 goals and 40 points, might be the one to watch in that section, but the Cavaliers also returning their top forward, Brandon Donnelly, who pumped in 16 goals and 31 points.

The best thing going for Pine-Richland is that one of its own, one-year wonder and Penguins Cup hero Brandon Saad, has made it in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks and played in the first two games of their new season. It’ll be another year of growing for the rebuilt Rams; they won’t touch Latrobe in Section 4, though Brendan Bagnato, offspring of head coach Mike Bagnato, brings experience in net, and Scott McAliney, who chipped in 11 goals and 30 points last season, is one to watch.

However, the short-term future looks much brighter for West Allegheny. With Robinson rivals Montour and Moon getting victimized by roster turnover, and North Hills just now rejoining the league for varsity hockey two years removed from a winless season in Class AAA, Section 1 should be West A’s for the taking. Jason Kumpfmiller, who posted a 2.30 GAA and .920 save percentage, can steal a game at any time, and high-flying Jon Levitt, who led the Indians with 16 goals and 23 points, could enjoy a breakout year. Plus, team chemistry should be improved now that those kids have had a year to get used to head coach Tim Veach’s more defense-oriented system.

PREDICTION: Mr. High School Sports says the Penguins Cup Final will come down to Bishop Canevin versus Latrobe. The Wildcats may no longer have the horses to be the team we’re used to seeing offensively, but Brudnok can strap that team to his back, and it is still a defensively responsible bunch, which, as the adage goes, is what wins championships. By that same token, there is little doubt the Crusaders’ defense can continue growing, judging by the players they have returning, and few teams in the classification are as offensively well rounded as they. Canevin is not devoid of clutch players, so a repeat is a very realistic goal.

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