By Matt Popchock
It didn’t happen exactly as we planned (the traditional press release from the league was conspicuously absent), but in any event, Brett Berner, Tanner Gilland, Conlan Sodrosky, and Justin Sabilla were honored as the PIHL Players of the Month for November while the Penguins were beating the Blackhawks.
So what have the honorees done for us lately?
Berner, a freshman forward, is already an assistant captain for North Hills. That program has struggled for years, even to the point of temporarily folding its varsity team last season, so the Indians will take whatever talent they can get. He opened his first varsity campaign with two goals and four assists in his first five games, but Berner cooled off a bit in December with two goals and one helper. Still, he’s averaging a point per game, and any freshman will take that in a heartbeat.
Gilliland has been the lone bright spot on a Butler squad that is still looking for its first win after nine games. The Golden Tornado has managed only 15 goals, and he has accounted for nine. He bested his four goals in November with five in December, and he continued his strong start with six points in December, which is one more than he had the previous month.
It’s awfully fitting Sabilla, Chartiers Valley’s senior captain, won this award after winning it in November 2010. He was a driving force behind that team’s turnaround, and the scoring pace he’s on right now is just sick. Sabilla has 25 goals and 36 points in his first nine games. He scored ten of those goals in December, including his fourth short-handed tally of the season, and he’s posted four multiple-goal games in a row. With only five teams over .500 through the holiday break, you could argue Class AA is down this season, but that should not diminish what Sabilla has accomplished thus far. He seems to be as good a captain as there is in the league.
Sodrosky was not present at CONSOL Energy Center Dec. 20, but he had a reasonable excuse; he was trying to help keep upstart Penn-Trafford unbeaten. Unfortunately, his two goals and one assist weren’t enough to keep North Allegheny from snapping the Warriors’ ten-game winning streak with a 7-5 victory at BladeRunners Warrendale. But after coming out of nowhere to lead Class AAA in scoring with 31 points, Sodrosky hasn’t taken his foot off the gas, contributing seven goals and 16 points in five December games. He had multiple points in all five.
With that win over the Warriors, North Allegheny (7-2-1) owns the second-longest active winning streak in Class AAA at five games, and it might be time to pencil the Tigers onto the “contenders” list.
We’re going to learn a lot about them in January. They open the second half of their season by hosting Mount Lebanon with an opportunity to gain a share of first place from the Blue Devils (8-2-1) in Section 2, and they have rematches with Peters Township and undefeated Canon-McMillan. But the difference between this N.A. team and others is the firepower and the balance up front that complements the defense.
Head coach Jim Black is known for preaching responsible own-zone play. It’s what helped the Tigers win their only Penguins and Pennsylvania Cups back in 2006-07, his first season on the job. But when I talked to him after the Penn-Trafford game, he said in the off-season he examined the possibility he needed to focus his own energies on teaching offense more often.
It’s a little different approach by North Allegheny, and so far, it has paid off. The Tigers are averaging over four goals per game, and fourteen different players have scored a goal for N.A. entering the new calendar year. They own a tie with Peters, which is expected to contend this year, and lopsided wins over Upper St. Clair and Norwin–another surprise team in Class AAA.
Meanwhile, Matthew Goda has been in goal for each of N.A.’s wins, even though his GAA of 2.78 and save percentage of .867 are both modest. But thanks to his defensemen, he doesn’t face a ton of quality shots, so if they can just keep doing what they’re doing, and if Goda picks up his own game, the Tigers will like where they end up at the end of the season.
By the way, while I’m thinking of these things, who should be the PIHL Players of the Month for December? I’ve got a few ideas…
*Dan Merz has helped Norwin keep pace with Penn-Trafford in Class AAA Section 4 with a five-game goal streak. Two of those goals came shorthanded, and the Knights went 4-0-1 in those five games.
*Jon Levitt scored twice for West Allegheny in a huge 4-2 win over Chartiers Valley to close out its first half. He posted ten goals in four December games, and ranks second in Class AA with 16 goals, and third in points with 26. The Indians lead Section 1.
*Kevin Kenny has played well enough at both ends to put Quaker Valley back on the radar in Class A. The tall forward carries a six-game goal streak into the second half of the season, and he racked up seven goals and 14 points in four December outings. Kenny has a power play goal in five straight games, and QV has won six in a row.
*Let’s give some love to the Open Class too, shall we? Isaac Fitzpatrick played an instrumental role in John Marshall’s title run last season, and he’s picked up right where he left off for the Open Cup champs this season. Fitzpatrick leads the Monarchs with 41 points, ranking second in the classification, and he amassed 11 goals, 16 points in five December games. Five of those goals came on special teams.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)