PIHL Notebook: 2011-2012 Class A High School Hockey Preview

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Monday, October 17, 2011 | 11:29 AM


Welcome to another edition of “PIHL Notebook” as we continue our comprehensive preview of the 2011-12 high school hockey season. This week, we go inside Class A where Mars will look to do what Latrobe could not in Class AA and capture a fourth straight Penguins Cup. There will be plenty of teams looking to prevent that, though, including the usual suspects like Serra Catholic and Quaker Valley, not to mention a returning Bishop McCort program. Meanwhile, Hampton is out to secure its place in the annual conversation about such teams while schools like South Fayette look to continue the forward momentum of recent years and take the next step. All this, plus we welcome a pair of Class AA teams into the fold in the team capsules below.

(Teams listed in order of 2010-11 winning percentage)

SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE

SECTION 1:

Serra Catholic Eagles

2010-11 record: 16-4-1; 1st Section 3

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Quarterfinals

Key departures: Jarrett Ruchka (15 G, 20 A); Garrett Hudson (16-4-1, 1.99 GAA, 0.900 SV %, 6 SO)

Key projected returns: Tyler Speis (25 G, 17 A); Garrett Kraemer (14 G, 23 A)

The skinny: After rocking the competition with 114 goals – fourth in the class – and finishing second only to Mars with 42 allowed, you know Serra Catholic is unhappy with failing to at least make a “Frozen Four” appearance. The Eagles always find a way to reload, though, and this season should be no different. Consider they proved more than capable of moving on without Erik Manetta in ’10-’11, and this time they get both leading scorers back, though Ruchka will be missed. The key, though, will be finding a suitable replacement for Hudson, who played every minute between the pipes last year.

South Fayette Lions

2010-11 record: 11-8-2; 2nd Section 3

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Quarterfinals

Key departures: Dan Curtin (5 G, 11 A); Michael Coyne (9-5-2, 3.46 GAA, 0.895 SV %)

Key projected returns: Nick Schultz (18 G, 21 A); Ryan Schultz (9 G, 14 A)

The skinny: This program has grown by leaps and bounds in just two seasons. After defying all odds just to make the postseason in ’09-’10, South Fayette put together a winning record last year and added one playoff victory before bowing to Mars. The Lions will want to improve the goal differential this time around, though, after finishing at minus-four. This may be tough with Coyne no longer strapping on the goalie pads, but Nicholas Blocher’s 3-3-0 mark and 0.876 save percentage as the backup give reason for optimism. Add the return of leading scorers Nick and Ryan Schultz, and the Lions look pretty good for a team which just lost nine seniors.

Thomas Jefferson Jaguars

2010-11 record: 5-14-1; 3rd Section 1-AA

2010-11 playoffs: Did not qualify

Key departures: Jacob Blair (13 G, 17 A); Mitch Mosgrove (17 G, 9 A)

Key projected returns: Kyle Miller (19 G, 15 A); Zach Uhlyar (7 G, 9 A)

The skinny: Thomas Jefferson can be reasonably happy with scoring 78 goals in ’10-’11, but 172 allowed, not so much. The Jaguars have fallen a long way from a 2007 appearance in the gold medal game against Pine-Richland, and the program has decided a move down is in order. Top scorer Miller is back, but all but one other 10-point scorer is gone, so it will fall on guys like Uhlyar to increase productivity. The real trick, though, will be shoring up the defense so Phillip Ripepi and Anthony Piccioni can improve upon GAA’s above 8.00 and save percentages in the 70’s.

South Park Eagles

2010-11 record: 3-18-0; 4th Section 3

2010-11 playoffs: Did not qualify

Key departures: Mike Knetzer (5 G, 5 A)

Key projected returns: Billy Walker (10 G, 7 A)

The skinny: After letting in 166 goals, South Park has much work to do in preparation for the ’11-’12 campaign. Give them this, though – it was a very young group last season with only two seniors and neither of them were goalies. There will be much pressure on Walker, the only player to average a point per game, to kick the Eagles into high gear offensively. His four shorthanded goals is a total which definitely impressed, but even if he does it again, the defense and goaltending have to improve if those markers are to matter.

SECTION 2:

Mars Planets

2010-11 record: 20-1-0; 1st Section 2

2010-11 playoffs: Won Penguins Cup & Pennsylvania Cup

Key departures: Rob Sigurdsson (22 G, 14 A); Tyler Stepke (13-1-0; 1.52 GAA, 0.909 SV %, 5 SO)

Key projected returns: Elliot Tisdale (33 G, 35 A); Austin Heakins (10 G, 33 A)

The skinny: Three Penguins Cup titles in a row and now back-to-back state championships – can Mars possibly keep this going? It is the question which plagues any program on a run like this, but 185 goals for and 23 allowed paced the competition, so no signs of slowing down just yet. You may think losing 10 seniors – including scoring king Tisdale – would be cause for concern, but getting back six out of 10 guys to hit 20 points or more is plenty of reason for confidence instead. Goaltending will be a question mark when the puck drops, though, with Stepke and 8-0-0 backup Walker Enstad gone. Will it be Chip Grater or Christian Knapp stepping into the starting role? We find out in one week.

Quaker Valley Quakers

2010-11 record: 15-6-0; 2nd Section 2

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Quarterfinals

Key departures: Zach Gittins (10-5-0, 2.20 GAA, 0.891 SV %, 3 SO)

Key projected returns: Kevin Kenny (23 G, 22 A); John Pilewicz (6 G, 33 A)

The skinny: Quaker Valley posted very solid regular season numbers with 129 goals ranking third in the class and 48 allowed putting them fifth. Repeating the offensive performance should be automatic with six 30-point performers all back. In fact, the Quakers only lost two seniors, one of which was starting backstop Gittins, so defense will likely be the area of focus in training camp. It helps that projected successor Jonathan Pijar posted a 3-1-0 mark, 2.63 GAA and one shutout last season, though.

Sewickley Academy Panthers

2010-11 record: 7-14-0; 3rd Section 3

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in First Round

Key departures: Ed Lally (26 G, 12 A); Dan Sponseller (19 G, 14 A)

Key projected returns: Reed Houston 11 G, 8 A); Bobby Hapanowicz (3 G, 9 A)

The skinny: The 81 goals Sewickley Academy scored may have produced more victories if the 112 allowed had been a smaller number. The task of improving both numbers will take some effort. Offensively, Houston will need to step up and lead since top scorers Lally and Sponseller are gone. At the other end, junior Hayden Moyer will need better play from his defensemen, but the 5.79 GAA and 0.815 save percentage also must improve.

NORTHEAST CONFERENCE

SECTION 3:

Kittanning Wildcats

2010-11 record: 20-1-0; 1st Section 4

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Semifinals

Key departures: Troy Schall (30 G, 32 A); Jordan Ford (29 G, 31 A)

Key projected returns: Heinz Koster (24 G, 30 A); Cameron Langham (20-1-0, 2.24 GAA, 0.898 SV %, 2 SO)

The skinny: After two straight seasons of dominating the regular season only to fall short in the penultimate playoff game, Kittanning fans must be scratching their heads. The Wildcats may not have led the league as in ’09-’10 or even the class with 170 goals, but still a staggering number along with the 47 allowed. Some of that firepower is gone with a total of five 20-point getters among the nine seniors leaving the program. Koster should be more than ready to take a leadership role, though, and Langham is only a junior, so another trip to Consol Energy Center could be in the cards.

Westmont Hilltop Hilltoppers

2010-11 record: 16-4-1; 2nd Section 4

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Semifinals

Key departures: Andrew Herbert (11 G, 28 A); Marcus Kallur (10 G, 9 A)

Key projected returns: Corey Schafer (36 G, 31 A); Noah McQuillan (21 G, 18 A)

The skinny: Westmont Hilltop ranked fifth in the class with 111 goals and sixth with 63 allowed. The latter total may have been what kept the Hilltoppers from taking the final step into the gold medal game, but there is no reason this bunch can’t make another run. Consider Schafer could easily go from second to first in the class scoring race as a senior, and he has plenty of support with all but two double-digit scorers back in the fold. Senior backstop Adam Ayre has to love his 13-4-1 record, but surely improving the 3.34 GAA and 0.832 save percentage will help get this team where it wants to be.

Freeport Yellowjackets

2010-11 record: 7-13-1; 3rd Section 4

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in First Round

Key departures: Dalton Moore (4 G, 8 A); Travis Hill (7 G, 4 A)

Key projected returns: Cole Hepler (13 G, 12 A); Cody Lee (7-13-1, 3.10 GAA, 0.887 SV %, 2 SO)

The skinny: The mere fact Freeport made the playoffs with a minus-13 goal differential and a record six games below .500 is a testament to hard this team works every night. There were only four seniors in that bunch, so the Yellowjackets have the always desired continuity in place to make improvements. Hepler led the team in points as a freshman, and he has three out of six other 10-point scorers returning with him. Lee is used to seeing plenty of rubber in his time as the Freeport goaltender, and his senior year should be no different.

Bishop McCort Crimson Crushers

2010-11 record: Did not play

The skinny: The PIHL simply was not the same without Bishop McCort last year, a perennial power in Class A. The Crimson Crushers may not have captured a Penguins Cup since 2005, but they have taken plenty of good shots since then. The decision to take a year off from varsity competition seemed to be a last-minute one since we even previewed them at this time last year, but they just could not fill out the roster. Different story this time it appears, and it’s difficult to expect anything but to see the program pick up where it left off.

SECTION 4:

Hampton Talbots

2010-11 record: 15-6-0; 1st Section 1

2010-11 playoffs: Lost in Finals

Key departures: Zach Homitz (13 G, 9 A); Sam Wilson (14-6-0, 2.10 GAA, 0.910 SV %, 4 SO)

Key projected returns: Luke Leya (21 G, 15 A); Ian Wood (13 G, 19 A)

The skinny: Hampton was the sixth and final team to top 100 goals while ranking third with 44 allowed. Unfortunately, it all ended with a shutout loss to Mars in the Penguins Cup Final, but Talbots fans have plenty of reason to be geared up for another run. After all, seven out of 10 players who topped 10 points are back, including Leya and Wood, who combined for 12 power play goals. The trick will be replacing Wilson, though, one of the truly elite goaltenders in the class for much of his time in the blue and gold.

Greensburg Central Catholic Centurions

2010-11 record: 3-17-0; 3rd Section 4-AA

2010-11 playoffs: Did not qualify

Key departures: Robert Tritschler (14 G, 5 A); Daniel Brennan (5 G, 9 A)

Key projected returns: Domenic Antonucci (10 G, 15 A); Ryan McHugh (3 G, 7 A)

The skinny: Greensburg Central struggled mightily last season, scoring just 45 goals while allowing 168. The powers that be decided it was time for a change of scenery and a chance to reload, so welcome the Centurions to Class A competition. With only five seniors on last year’s squad, there is every reason to believe this group can improve, especially with top scorer Antonucci back on the ice. Tritschler’s eight goals on special teams (4 PP, 4 SH) will be missed, though. Junior goaltender William Potter has the most work to do, though, after going 1-10-0.

Knoch Knights

2010-11 record: 6-15-0; 2nd Section 1

2010-11 playoffs: Did not qualify

Key departures: Tim Hennessy (8 G, 23 A); Nathan Medic (13 G, 15 A)

Key projected returns: Mike Rykaczewski (25 G, 16 A); Nick Brubach (6 G, 9 A)

The skinny: Like Sewickley Academy, it was not scoring goals that kept Knoch out of the postseason. The Panthers got 84 of those. No, it was allowing 122 which killed their chances. It hurts that three out of four players who reached the 20-point plateau are gone, so it will fall on guys like Brubach to step up and help Rykaczewski lead the offense. None of that will matter if Grant Donnelly fails to improve on his 6.32 GAA and 0.807 save percentage, though.

This completes the hat trick on our PIHL season preview, but we have one more left in us, especially since next Monday marks the beginning of the season. So, check back next week for a look inside the Open Class. The exclusive home for the 2012 Penguins Cup Playoffs is the MSA Sports Network!

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