By Matt Popchock


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High school hockey in western Pennsylvania is all about the South Hills these days.

A team from that area has qualified for ten of the 12 Class AAA Penguins Cup Finals that have been played since the formation of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League, winning eight of those, including the last two.

Mount Lebanon’s own Matt Bartkowski, once a draftee of the Florida Panthers, has caught on with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, bouncing between the big club and its AHL affiliate in Providence.

High school hockey in western Pennsylvania is also about change.

For example, veteran coach Larry Marks led Upper St. Clair to thrilling overtime victories over defending PIHL champ Canon-McMillan in the Penguins Cup Final and LaSalle in the Pennsylvania Cup Final, not only erasing the program’s 21-year Penguins Cup drought, but also delivering USC’s first state title in hockey since 1987…and he won’t be back behind the bench this season.

Despite a 47-14-6 overall record in three seasons, Marks’ contract was not renewed and program officials voted to replace him two months after the Panthers’ remarkable run. Varsity assistant and head JV coach Gary Klapkowski, who was once a standout at Serra Catholic and played junior and minor league hockey for several years, has taken the reins.

Several of the team’s top players had publicly and privately expressed discontent, though others did not comment, nor did those program officials, pointing toward the possibility Marks’ removal was politically motivated.

In any event, Klapkowski’s team faces a stiff challenge trying to defend both crowns in one of the best sections in the league. That’s because an even bigger change awaits them.

Peters Township, which dominated PIHL Class AA for years and reached the 2011 Penguins Cup Final, is playing up in Section 1 of Class AAA this season. The section also consists of perennial playoff team Bethel Park and two-time finalist Canon-McMillan.

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This year’s Penguins Cup champion seems likely to come out of that section for a third year in a row. But will it be the Panthers?

Both goaltenders are back, including stretch run hero Michael Ambrose, who won five of six regular season starts and shut out top seed Fox Chapel in the Penguins Cup Semifinals, and emerging forward Mike Sweeney, whose wraparound goal won the Penguins Cup Final, is also back. However, a number of USC’s top guns have graduated, so its window of opportunity may be closing.

Peters has the look of a team that can compete in its new surroundings immediately. The Indians, who finished with the best regular season record in Class AA last winter, boast another balanced attack led by Taylor Cox, who pumped in 25 goals and 44 points to lead them in 2010-11. Fueling the fire are Cole Snyder and Trevor Recktenwald, while talented defensemen Brad Tylenda and Jacob Brown stabilize the back end, and goalie Brian Baker comes back a year wiser.

Canon-McMillan, which opens its season against USC (more on that later), also returns depth that has served the Big Macs well. They have good senior leadership punctuated by hard-shooting defenseman Alex Baskakov, one of the premier blue-liners in the league, and winger Zach McKown, who fired in 16 goals and 35 points, and was a key member in the supporting cast. If Canon-Mac finds a true number one goaltender, keep an eye on that team.

Keep an eye on Bethel Park as well, which is usually in the mix under the guidance of venerable head coach Jim McVay. The Black Hawks have an exceptional scoring winger themselves in Zach Volzer, who contributed 17 goals and 30 points, versatility on the back end with Jacob Brown, and a rising star between the pipes in Austin McGinty. Time will tell if the rest of the Hawks’ offense can keep up with the rest of the section.

So can anybody touch these guys? North Allegheny has an exceptional goaltender in Matthew Goda who posted a 2.36 GAA and four shutouts, making the Tigers a favorite in Section 2, and Fox Chapel, last year’s top seed, also has an All-Star minding the cage in Tyler Fannie, who led Class AAA with 18 wins and a 1.93 GAA, making the Foxes a team to watch again in Section 3. However, roster turnover leaves both teams in a position where they may have to grind out goals, which could leave them vulnerable against the other top teams in the classification.

Among the other dark horses are McDowell, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Shaler, and State College. McDowell could challenge N.A. in Section 2 with leading scorer Ryan Guzek, who scored 18 goals and 32 points, healthy again, though it’ll be interesting to see how quickly the new coaching regime led by Bob Jammers, who takes over for the retired ex-Penguins Cup champ Nels White, can get the Trojans going.

Central and Shaler could threaten the Foxes’ reign over Section 3, based on what both teams have up front. The Vikings’ coaching staff this season is also new, but they have some talented forwards coming back in Eric Smith, Kevin Kline, and James Pozycki, who led the team with 16 goals and 23 points. The Titans, meanwhile, boast Jacob Hetz, son of coach Curt Hetz, who finished fifth in Class AAA in scoring last season with 29 goals, including nine on the man-advantage, and 45 points.

Dan Maier, who finished seventh with 24 goals and 41 points, returns to Penn-Trafford for his senior season, and Dan Merz, who sniped 23 goals and collected 40 points, will lead Norwin once again, but State College is the team to beat in Section 4. Accomplished forward Dan Moscone, who registered 19 goals and 35 points, will lead the Little Lions, who have good chemistry and a strong blue line led by Sam Englehart and Derrick May. They’ve adjusted well to life in Class AAA and picked up a signature win over Fox Chapel toward the end of the 2010-11 campaign.

PREDICTION: Mr. High School Sports says the Penguins Cup Final will come down to Canon-McMillan versus Peters Township. The Big Macs still have good leadership on offense, and they have responsible puck-moving defensemen, so in due time, their goaltending vacancy should work itself out. Four seasons ago, Pine-Richland proved a team can be an overnight success when it decides to play up, and with the depth of the Indians’ offense, couple with their solid play on the back end, they have the personnel to replicate that feat.

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