By Matt Popchock
A season that was building to an incredible ending reached an ironically forgettable climax at the RMU Island Sports Center in Coraopolis Sunday evening.
Penguins Cup champion Bethel Park seldom appeared to have a chance in a 6-2 loss to returning Flyers Cup champion LaSalle (25-2-0) in the Class AAA state title game. The Explorers claimed their third Pennsylvania Cup in five seasons and fourth all-time.
While the other two western participants held their own in close games, the Black Hawks (18-8-1), who, 24 hours earlier, had been pushed till the waning moments of regulation by a talented Peters Township squad, didn’t find their legs until it was too late. But there’s no shame in losing to an eventual champion, and LaSalle might have been the most fundamentally sound team Bethel Park faced all year.
The Hawks, who tend to play their best hockey during the stretch run of the PIHL campaign, closed out that portion of their schedule with 15 straight wins, including their first Penguins Cup since 2005. The Explorers also won 15 consecutive games–all 15, in fact–against Pennsylvania-based opponents for the right to skate in Sunday’s contest.
They even had veteran Bethel Park coach Jim McVay, one of the cleverest and most passionate here in western PA, calling them one of the best teams in this part of the country. They vindicated that praised by storming out to a 3-0 second-period lead, thanks to power play and even-strength goals by Andy Grajewski book-ending a power play tally by Andy Romano, before Brody Taylor got the goose egg off the board during a man-advantage for Bethel Park.
The real crusher was a shorthanded goal conceded to Nick Master later in that second period. Until that puck crossed the line behind Alex Blum, momentum had clearly shifted to the Hawks’ bench. In the third Blum’s counterpart, Andrew King, denied Jake Worcester on a penalty shot that would have given Bethel some life.
This loss, however, should not define what was otherwise a very successful season by the most accomplished program in PIHL Class AAA since the turn of the century.
A few highlights of Bethel Park’s 15-game winning streak:
*The Hawks won their fifth Class AAA title as a member of the PIHL, more than any team in that classification. Perhaps it was destiny; this marked the third season in a row that the third-place finisher in AAA-Sec. 1 ultimately hoisted the Penguins Cup.
*Their leading scorer during the regular season was a sophomore, Derek Lesnak, who collected 15 goals and 36 points prior to the playoffs. He registered 24 of those points during the final 11 regular season games, and carried with him a 14-game point streak that lasted until Mar. 7. His first postseason goal came in triple-overtime of the Penguins Cup Quarterfinals at North Allegheny.
*They got key contributions from other underclassmen as well. Danny Yost led the team with five power play goals during the regular campaign, and scored the game-winner against McDowell in a playoff-opening win. Jake Worcester finished second on the team with 14 regular season goals, and netted the game-winner in a semifinal upset of No. 1 seed Penn-Trafford.
*With 42 goals allowed, Bethel Park boasted the top defense in Class AAA entering the Penguins Cup Playoffs. The Hawks allowed just 17 goals during their final 11 regular season contests, and just six in their first four postseason games. Blum finished his high school career as the Class AAA leader in GAA (1.69).
*Speaking of defense, a number of Bethel’s current blue-liners will graduate, but one who showed a lot of promise and should be back next season is Austin Jameyson. He exploded for 13 points in his last six regular season appearances, and he gave McVay quality minutes in the playoffs; he was on the ice for Zach Volzer’s decisive power play goal at CONSOL Energy Center.
By the way, while the varsity squad became the talk of the league, the JV team made quite a statement about the future of the program by winning its section with an impressive 16-2 finish.
The 2011-12 season did not end the way the varsity Hawks wanted, but with a defensive style of play that has been obviously well taught, young talent that still has room to grow, and at least one championship to celebrate, it’s safe to say Bethel Park is back.
You can go ahead and touch that Cup now, boys.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)