Contenders aplenty as PIHL drops puck on regular season

Sunday, September 29, 2019 | 5:23 PM

While there are many unknowns heading into the PIHL season, which opens Monday, two things are certain: there will be new Penguins Cup champions in Class AA and A.

The league’s reclassification pushed last year’s champs, Pine-Richland (AAA) and Montour (AA), up a level.

The Rams went 18-0-1 during the regular season and claimed Penguins Cup and Pennsylvania Cup championships. Upper St. Clair, which lost to Pine-Richland in last year’s Penguins Cup title game, moves up as well.

“It’s a level we definitely want to be competing at. We’re excited for the opportunity,” Pine-Richland coach Jordan Yoklic said. “It should be competitive.”

After graduating close to 20 seniors, Pine-Richland will have a new look. However, All-Star goaltender Danny Stauffer returns, along with skaters Joe Folmer, Jack Carnovale, Richard Wild and Jack Tyndall.

“We had a lot of guys graduate, but it generates a lot of opportunities for younger guys,” Yoklic said. “They’re up for the challenge.”

Graduation hit North Allegheny hard, too, but the reigning Penguins Cup Class AAA champs return key players in Tyler Lamark, Will Parreaguirre and Tyler Putnam.

“I think up front we have some experience and some speed. I think our test will definitely be in the back end. We graduated five defensemen and Rich Karapandi, who was arguably the best goalie in the league,” NA coach Mike Bagnato said. “We have, what I feel, is good, young talent in some sophomores and freshmen. We’ll see how they respond. We’re excited to get going and try to defend our title.”

Bethel Park captured the St. Margaret preseason tournament and could be a Penguins Cup contender. Eight of the 11 teams qualify for the playoffs.

Class AA

South Fayette, West Allegheny, Meadville and Montour moved up and add to the competitive field in Class AA, which features four divisions with the top two teams in each making the playoffs.

“Those are four solid programs, and some have a very rich history of winning Penguin Cups. They are great additions to Double-A. They want to prove they belong there. I think it’ll be a lot of fun hockey. It’ll be a very competitive year,” Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “Having four divisions and only the top two teams going to the playoffs, I think it’ll come down to the wire.”

The Wildcats, who lost to Pine-Richland in last year’s Penguins Cup semifinals, are among a crowded field of contenders. They return Alex Walker, Lane Ruffner, Cole Ferri and Jarred Stein, among others.

“The majority of our team from last year is still in place. We have about 10 seniors this year,” Werner said. “This is our big year.”

Montour and West Allegheny hope to be a contenders, too, and Baldwin opened eyes with its play at the St. Margaret tournament.

Class A

North Catholic’s program returns to varsity play this fall. The Trojans won two Penguins Cups (AAA in 1981 and AA in 1995), but shuttered the program nearly two decades ago. It was brought back at the JV level the past three seasons.

Thomas Jefferson is a contender. The Jaguars return a veteran core, including goaltender Luke Ripepi. They advanced to the Greensburg Salem preseason tournament championship game.

Freeport, along with Armstrong, will play on the road for the first month until ice refrigeration issues at the Belmont Ice Complex in Kittanning are fixed.

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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