PIHL season preview: Plenty of contenders chasing championships in 2021-22

Sunday, October 3, 2021 | 8:30 PM

The PIHL season begins Monday, and there are some changes to the league but a lot will remain the same.

North Allegheny, Baldwin, Indiana and Neshannock won championships last season, but only two remain in the same classification: North Allegheny and Neshannock. Indiana and Baldwin move up a classification, meaning Class AA and A will crown new champions when the long journey comes to its culmination.

Class AAA

North Allegheny has won the past two contested Class AAA Penguins Cup Championships. A year ago, the Tigers were the fourth seed in the Penguins Cup Playoffs after going 13-5-1 in the regular season before defeating Mt. Lebanon, the field’s seventh seed, in the championship, 4-1.

Baldwin, which won all but one of its 18 regular-season contests a year ago and shut out Franklin Regional in the Class AA title game, 2-0, is joining the largest classification.

The field adds Baldwin but drops Butler, which went 1-19 last season. The Golden Tornado was the only team to not win at least six games.

North Allegheny won the preseason St. Margaret Fall Faceoff tournament for the eighth time by defeating Mt. Lebanon, 5-4, in a shootout after needing eight rounds of a shootout to beat Baldwin in the semifinals. Seneca Valley was the other semifinalist in the preseason tournament.

The Tigers graduated four players, including goalie Josh Bailey, who was 11-5-1 with a 2.31 GAA. Good goaltending seems to find the Tigers year in and year out, like the rest of the classification, which has, over the past few seasons, enjoyed a lot of close games, good goaltending and defense with a competitive game night in and night out.

North Allegheny coach Mike Bagnato expects a group of about seven or eight returners to make big impacts and said he thinks that have a good opportunity to contend for a third-straight title.

As for the rest of the classification, he said it will be competitive.

“This will be difficult with Mt. Lebanon still strong. Baldwin is the defending champs from AA and has a very good goaltender,” Bagnato said. “Pine-Richland looks good again and never count out Peters.”

Baldwin graduated a handful of seniors, but one of its biggest returning seniors is goaltender Eddie Nowicki, who allowed 1.12 goals against last season and posted five shutouts with a .960 save percentage in the regular season. He allowed just three goals and made 90 saves en route to Baldwin’s AA title.

Peters Township, Pine-Richland and Upper St. Clair have all had recent success. Peters Township’s board, after not renewing coach Rick Tingle’s contract, reversed its decision and reinstated the successful and longtime coach to his post.

Class AA

The classification adds Butler and Indiana, last year’s Class A champion. The classification lost Moon, Hampton and Plum, all of which dropped to Class A.

Last season, Montour, Baldwin, Armstrong and Hempfield won division titles before Baldwin bested Franklin Regional, the seventh seed in the bracket, in the Penguins Cup Finals. The Panthers defeated Hempfield and Montour in the postseason.

Thomas Jefferson hopes to be a factor after going 16-1-1 last season, though the Jaguars will have to do it with a new coach. Alumnus John Zeiler returns to TJ after a few seasons at the helm of Elizabeth Forward. Zeiler also coaches with Penguins Elite and the Pittsburgh Vengence program. The former NHLer replaces Bill Crousey, who retired. Zeiler won three state championships with Thomas Jefferson from 1998-2000.

The Jaguars graduated a talented senior class that included Hunter Fairman, Eddie Pazo, Riley Holzer, Brady Rotolo, Will O’Brien, Ryan Kelly, Luke Ripepi, Luke Rayman and Jake Gardiner.

Latrobe returns multiple key contributors, and division champion Montour graduated more than that, including standouts Anthony Migliozzi and Michael Felsing. Armstrong and Franklin Regional figure to be contenders as well.

“We have a lot of guys returning this year and look to build from our second half we had last year,” Latrobe coach Josh Werner said. “We have two senior goalies, and Vinny Amatucci is returning.”

Werner said the Icecats bring back their defensemen and are looking for a group of forwards to make big impacts.

Indiana, who won Class A last season, graduated six players, including three of its top four scorers in Danny Williams, Zach Eisenhower and Tanner Agnello. Ben Nettleton, who was third on the team in goals and points, returns. Seamus O’Connor posted three shutouts and was 17-0 last season.

“Indiana and Butler are big additions to AA [and are both] well-coached teams. I feel like I say it every year, but AA is the most competitive division in the PIHL,” said Werner. “It is going to be a tough year for everyone. [We’re] going to have to play our A game every game.”

Class A

Class A fields four divisions with four teams plus Wheeling Catholic and Wheeling Park in the Wheeling Division. That makes for an 18-team classification.

Indiana, before winning the class, went unbeaten in the Southeast while Greensburg Salem separated itself from Norwin and Westmont Hilltop. Kiski and Freeport had 30 points each at the top of the Northeast Division while North Catholic was also well above .500 with 22 points in 18 games. Then, in the Northwest Division, McDowell won it with 13 points and a 6-11 record.

The Northwest Division remains the same, while the Northeast will be made up of newcomers, Hampton and Plum, as well as mainstays Freeport and Fox Chapel in the classification. Kiski Area, Greensburg Salem, Norwin and Westmont Hilltop make up the Southeast Division. Moon, which drops down like Plum and Hampton, will compete in a tough division with North Catholic, Chartiers Valley and North Hills.

Chartiers Valley, last year’s runner up to Indiana, lost one of the league’s best goalies in Logan Marnik to graduation, as well as some other key pieces. The Colts boast a big roster with nine seniors and are led by Greg Kraemer, whose 40 points led the Colts last year.

“We are very young having graduated 10 seniors, which is a huge number for Chartiers Valley. We are dressing more freshmen and sophomores than juniors and seniors and as such the learning curve has been a little steeper than in previous seasons,” said Colts coach Paul Bonetti. “I expect that we will get significant contributions from several freshmen including Matthew Colberg in goal.”

Bonetti also thinks Kraemer is one of the best in the league and other pieces they return are underrated.

North Catholic lost seven seniors but returns three of its top five scorers from last season. North Catholic also returns two goalies who saw significant time between the pipes in Dylan Bourque and Shane Hornish. Connor Bridges had a 2.42 GAA in 10 games last season but is not on the roster for North Catholic.

Freeport and Kiski Area also made the semifinals last season and hope to contend again in 2021-22. Plum won a Class AA championship not too long ago. North Hills also returns the bulk of its impact pieces from a season ago.

“I don’t see a team as dominant as Indiana was the past couple of seasons, so the classification is fairly wide open. That being said, I see North Hills as the team to beat,” said Bonetti. “After that, I see North Catholic, Kiski, Westmont Hilltop and Quaker Valley with some other teams in the mix like Norwin, Moon and Greensburg Salem.”

Division 2

The sometimes difficult to predict open division, built mostly of co-op teams, could turn that way again this season with the exit of some solid groups of seniors.

Last season, Ringgold and Carrick went back and forth a bit at the top of the South Division in D2, while Neshannock, Wilmington and Bishop Canevin fought atop the North. In the end, Ringgold won the South by not losing a game in regulation. Carrick was in second followed by Connellsville and Elizabeth Forward. In the North, it was Neshannock, the eventual Division 2 Champion, followed by Wilmington, Bishop Canevin and Avonworth as the playoff qualifiers. The field saw Burrell, a former power, win just three games.

Defending champion Neshannock graduates Tino Multari, who had 47 points (30 goals) last season. They also will be without second-leading scorer Hunter Harris. Key scorers Tommy Malvar and Giovanni Valentine return for the Lancers. Neshannock also returns its No. 1 goalie, Riley Mastowski.

“My coaching staff and myself fully believe that coming off of our championship last year that we can be very competitive again. We expect to make a run again this year,” said Mark Multari, Neshannock’s coach. “We lost our top two point producers to graduation, Santino Multari and Hunter Harris, but we feel we have a deeper team and expect scoring from all four of our lines this year to replace the scoring we lost from last year’s seniors.”

Multari continued to say that the division is getting more competitive every year.

“Our teams are getting stronger and [are] able to hang with some of the pure-division teams. We recently knocked off Cathedral Prep in our only preseason matchup this year.”

Wilmington lost two of its top three scorers to graduation but returns its leading goal scorer in Drake Tomak, who lit the lamp 25 times last season. Carrick graduated five seniors but returns its top three scorers. Ringgold graduates big scorers in Zach Kalinowski and Hunter Suarez, but returns most of its roster otherwise.

Multari said the division doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

“I believe that any of our teams can match up with each other this year. We cannot take a night off,” said Multari. “The battle for our championship should be great again, and I expect a very tight race for the playoff spots.”

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