Balance of hockey power in South Hills shifts to Thomas Jefferson, Baldwin

Sunday, March 7, 2021 | 10:01 AM

One corner of the South Hills has become prime property for high school hockey aficionados.

Baldwin and Thomas Jefferson, located about 6 miles apart, have monopolized the action in the PIHL Class AA ranks since the start of the 2019-20 season.

The teams were a combined 23-1-0-1 at the end of February, as the Highlanders led the Southwest Division at 12-0, followed by the Jaguars at 11-1-0-1.

“We’ve had a great group of kids since I’ve started coaching at Baldwin five years ago,” coach Justin Glock said. “We have a ton of tough opponents ahead of us. So while we’ve done well so far, we have a lot of work to do before we can define this year’s season.”

Baldwin and Thomas Jefferson were scheduled to clash March 9 at Ice Castle in a rematch of an early regular-season game. Baldwin edged TJ, 4-3, on Nov. 5.

The Highlanders racked up a 19-1 record and secured a berth in the PIHL finals last year before the coronavirus pandemic shut things down. The Jaguars also reached the finals a year ago in Class A with a 21-1 record.

“Last year’s team was a very special group with a ton of depth,” Glock said. “I was lucky to coach that team and felt sorry they were unable to finish last season. Whether this year or last, our players deserve all of the credit. They listen to what our coaches ask them to do and trust in how we’re trying to play.”

The neighboring squads have combined to log a 63-1-0-1 record over the last two seasons.

“The biggest reason we have been successful the past two years is the talent and depth on our team,” TJ coach Bill Crousey said. “When you add how hard the players have been working, success is likely to follow.

“The area does have its share of good athletes. Our hockey program has been fortunate to have some of those athletes choose the sport of hockey.”

The Jaguars also posted successful 15-3 and 17-3 regular-season records in 2018-19 and 2017-18.

“I’m not sure how to label our play,” Crousey said. “The past two years, we having been using our speed and depth to try and pressure other teams all over the rink. In past years when our talent and depth have not been so deep, we played more of a positional and opportunistic style.

“Every year, we evaluate our team and determine a style of play that puts the team in the best position to be successful.”

Thomas Jefferson has utilized an up-tempo style of hockey in 2020-21, registering a division-high 88 goals while allowing 26 in 13 games. The Jaguars average close to seven goals per game offensively.

TJ outscored the opposition 167-46 last season and averaged 7.6 goals per game.

Defensive-minded Baldwin surrendered just 13 goals in its first 12 games this season while scoring 64 times (5.3 per game) on the offensive end. The Highlanders outscored the opposition 107-37 last season, averaging 5.3 gpg.

“I hope if you asked other teams that they’d say our team is tough to play against and hard working,” Glock said. “We have some very talented players, but we want to work hard first, consistently make the correct play, then let our players’ talent kick in.”

This year, as of Feb. 28, TJ senior forwards Hunter Fairman and Eddie Pazo ranked 1-2 in Class AA scoring with 44 and 38 points. Fairman accounted for 25 goals and 19 assists; Pazo peppered in 13 goals and 25 assists.

Senior forward Keith Reed paced Baldwin in the scoring column with 20 goals and five assists.

Four other players were among the top 20 in scoring in AA — Baldwin’s Don Trimbur (7 goals, 11 assists) and TJ’s Ryan Kelly (4-14), Will O’Brien (9-9) and Riley Holzer (8-8). Kelly, O’Brien and Holzer are senior forwards; Trimbur is a junior forward.

TJ junior forward Colby Bilski also had eight goals and 14 points, while the trio of junior defenseman Trevor Belak, senior defenseman Robbie Aranos and senior forward Zach Borman all had reached double figures in points for the Highlanders.

Baldwin’s Eddie Nowicki stood atop the AA goaltending charts with a 12-0 record, 1.09 goals-against average and two shutouts.

TJ’s Luke Ripepi rated sixth-best with an 8-1-1 record, 22 goals against and a 2.20 goals-against average. Nowicki is a junior; Ripepi a senior.

It’s players like these that have helped make the South Hills area a hotbed of sorts for high school hockey.

“It’s great to see,” Glock said. “With all of the young talent, I have to give credit to the local coaches around the South Hills developing players’ skills.

“Our JV and middle school coaches have done a great job developing players inside our hockey organization, as well.”

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