By Matt Popchock
As previously said, change is a major theme of the new high school hockey season. Typically, however, not much changes in the smallest of the PIHL’s “pure” classifications from year to year.
In Class A the gap separating the haves from the have-nots has not necessarily closed since the formation of the league. If anything, it has widened. With a few exceptions, the rosters are typically small, because the member schools are generally smaller, which directly affects the level of competition.
Case in point: prior to last season, only seven different teams in the classification had competed for the Penguins Cup since 1999. One of those teams did not play in the PIHL last season (Bishop McCort), and another of those teams will not play in the league this season (Somerset).
Hampton made itself an exception to the norm last winter when the Talbots stunned Kittanning in a fight-filled semifinal game before bowing to three-time champion Mars in their first-ever Finals appearance.
Watering things down further in 2011-12 will be the absence of Sewickley Academy’s varsity squad. The grass-roots efforts of that school to start a team at the turn of the century and make it a competitive one at times have been commendable, but Sewickley, which has flirted with manpower problems, made a late decision to cease the operation of its varsity program this season, leaving the league with the anomaly of a two-team Section 2 (Mars and Quaker Valley).
Greensburg Central Catholic is playing down, and former Class AA powerhouse Thomas Jefferson has joined Class A as well. What difference it will make remains to be seen, but in any event, expect the usual suspects to step to the front of the line in March.
The one thing you can say about that unintended two-team section is that the two teams in it might very well end up meeting at CONSOL Energy Center. After reaching the semifinals of the St. Margaret’s Fall Face-Off, an exhibition tournament that annually precedes the new PIHL season, Mars looks like it has a real shot at a fourth consecutive Penguins Cup and third Pennsylvania Cup in a row.
A lot of talent has graduated from Steve Myers’ team, but the pantry is not bare when it comes to experience and leadership. Post-season hero Nick Blaney, whose hat trick propelled Mars past Springfield for the state title, is back, coming off 17 goals and 36 points in the 2010-11 regular campaign. Austin Heakins, one of the top playmakers in Class A, has also returned after registering 33 assists last season, not to mention 20-goal scorer and special teams ace Joe Bender.
New goaltender Alex Stepke has some pretty big pads to fill when you look back at the accomplishments of older brother Tyler Stepke, but he’s supported by a well-schooled group of defensemen that includes Greg Makozy and Bryan Thomas.
Meanwhile, head coach and QV program co-founder Kevin Quinn, the brother of former Penguin Dan Quinn, has patiently rebuilt the Quakers, who could make some noise down the road. Leading scorer Kevin Kenny, who finished seventh in Class A with 23 goals and 45 points, including six power-play tallies, will once again fuel their offense, with help from talented power forward Jason Lottes, who chipped in 24 goals and 37 points.
In addition, John Pilewicz has emerged as one of the better puck-moving defensemen in the PIHL, coming off a 33-assist season of his own, and former Quaker Valley All-Star/current RMU forward Furman South adds valuable experience on the bench as an assistant to Quinn. Keep an eye on this team, especially if it can find a true number one goaltender.
But remember, last season Hampton was an under-the-radar team that turned heads in the playoffs, and once again, the wild cards in Class A have players worth watching.
Longtime powerhouse Bishop McCort is back after financial troubles put the kibosh on their varsity team for one year, and goaltender James Stenger, who comes from a proud hockey family, could give the Crimson Crushers a chance to compete.
South Fayette has made tremendous progress since rejoining the league after an absence of several seasons at the varsity level. The Lions are another top team going through a changing of the guard between the pipes, but brothers Ryan and Nick Schultz, who combined for 27 goals and 62 points in 2010-11, are back, and Blake Barber is plenty capable of stabilizing the back end.
The most compelling playoff battle will probably take place in Section 3. Slugging it out with Bishop McCort and Freeport will be Kittanning and Westmont Hilltop.
The Wildcats have lost a lot of firepower, but they still have a great offensive leader in Heinz Koster, fifth-leading scorer in the classification with 24 goals and 54 points last year, and if goalie Cameron Langham can grow from that disappointing playoff loss, they can still be dangerous. Another hard-working netminder, Adam Ayre, is back for the Hilltoppers, who keep it all in the family with Cullen, Adam, and Noah McQuillan playing under the guidance of legendary head coach “King” Arthur McQuillan.
Noah is the team’s top returning scorer, with 21 goals and 37 points last season and seven of those goals coming on special teams.
Section 4, in contrast, should still be Hampton’s to lose. Dan Serakowski takes over as the Talbots’ third head coach in as many seasons since Brad Lloyd took an out-of-state job, but this team still has a great deal of experience and stability. Defenseman Brian Swain handles his business well, and forwards Ian Wood and Joe Vita should continue to provide productivity up front.
The Talbots earned a memorable postseason win over Serra Catholic last winter, and, as is usually the case, the Eagles should be a fascinating bunch once again. The team is small on roster volume, but big on skill, as forwards Garner Kraemer and Tyler Speis lead the pack, with R.J. Kendi providing experience at both ends and Travis Marzina providing leadership by switching positions from forward to goaltender.
PREDICTION: Mr. High School Sports says the Class A Final will come down to Mars versus Quaker Valley. It should be interesting to see how both schools fare having to put unproven goaltenders in the cage, but the Planets are still the most well-peopled, and arguably, well-coached team in the classification, and the bottom line is, they know how to play playoff hockey. Speaking of good coaching, the staff at QV, once again, deserves credit for easing that team through the some growing pains in recent seasons, and with a wave of size and skill up front to complement maturity on defense, the Quakers appear ready to pencil themselves back onto the short list of true contenders in Single-A.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)