Realignment changes PIHL landscape, but champs are back to defend their titles

Tuesday, October 3, 2023 | 11:47 PM

The 2023-24 PIHL season has begun, and while the alignment of the league has undergone changes, the contenders and talent on the ice are back for another year of puck.

Last winter, Peters Township. South Fayette, Kiski Area and Ringgold took home Penguins Cup titles. All four champions can defend their crowns in the same classification, but others have shifted.

Class 3A

Peters Township has won back-to-back Penguins Cup titles in the league’s highest classification. Last season, Peters ran the table as the top seed in the playoffs, defeating No. 8 Mt. Lebanon, No. 4 North Allegheny and No. 7 Upper St. Clair on its way to the top of the class. Peters was defeated in the state final 7-3 by LaSalle.

Class 3A was the league’s lowest-scoring classification last season, which has been a trend recently. There is great goaltending in a normal 3A year, but it’s also a classification that has some of the premier players in the league.

Of the top 10 point producers from a season ago, none are listed on rosters this season on the PIHL’s website. Nine of the 11 skaters have graduated, and two, Ben Kovac and Will Tomko of Peters Township, are not on the Peters roster at the outset of the year.

So keep an eye out for new leaders and top scorers.

Peters Township returns senior Kyle Thomas, one half of a goalie tandem that was great last season. He was 7-1 with a 1.74 goals-against average.

Seneca Valley and Central Catholic posted 29 points during the regular season. North Allegheny was fourth with 27, in front of Cathedral Prep, Upper St. Clair, Pine-Richland and Mt. Lebanon, who rounded out the playoff field. Baldwin, Bethel Park and Canon-McMillan missed the dance a year ago. The 11-team field in Triple-A remains the same this season.

Longtime Peters Township coach Rick Tingle said Triple-A will be “competitive as always.” He expects to see a formidable Pine-Richland team when the two-time defending champs open the season Thursday.

“Last year is over, and we will start out like everyone else at 0-0,” Tingle said.

Class 2A

South Fayette returns to defend its title in Class 2A’s field of 11 teams.

A year ago, Armstrong finished with 34 points in the regular season, South Fayette with 32 and Bishop McCort with 28. Penn-Trafford, Thomas Jefferson, Latrobe, Franklin Regional and Hempfield filled out the playoff field. Mars, Meadville and Butler missed the postseason.

North Hills moves up from Class A to 2A, as do Norwin and Fox Chapel. Double-A lost Butler and Meadville from the classification. Meadville and Butler have joined the Gold Division in Single-A. Mars also has left the classification.

South Fayette knocked off Armstrong in the Penguins Cup title game for the Double-A after defeating Franklin Regional and Latrobe to get there.

Nick Bruno, who led Double-A with 69 points during the regular season, has graduated from Hempfield. The leading returning scorer is Bishop McCort junior Timur Naletov, who collected 48 points (10 goals and 38 assists). His 38 assists led the classification.

Like in Triple-A, none of the rest of the top 10 point producers return. Bishop McCort also brings back Hleb Subach, who was third in wins between the pipes in the classification a season ago. He was 12-3 with a 3.54 GAA.

The champion Lions graduated starting goalie Nolan Schilling, who was 10-4-1 with a GAA in the 3.30 range. The Lions and 2022-23 top seed Armstrong graduated nine players each.

Coach Matt Schwartz said South Fayette has some key returners, but captain and points leader Wes Schwarzmiller graduated. Also, Brayden Imler, who was set to return on the blue line, will play amateur hockey with Pens Elite this season. Schwartz expects a lot of freshmen to step in and step up.

“We are a skilled group that works hard,” Schwartz said. “Our players are eager to learn and relish the opportunity to defend our state championship.”

The defending champs’ coach thinks Double-A will be highly competitive.

Thomas Jefferson should be the favorite with 10-plus seniors, four of which were top scorers last season. (They’re) a tenacious group and extremely well-coached,” he said. “Franklin Regional should be very strong. Bishop McCort will be very strong. Armstrong is young but good. Penn-Trafford is a young group as well. Latrobe looked really strong (in its season opener).”

Coach Cam Raidna’s Fox Chapel team moves up to Double-A after great success the last few years in Single-A, though they were upset in the Pens Cup final last season.

“Our expectations are to make the playoffs and make a run,” Raidna said. “We have a strong core of nine seniors that I feel will lead this team to where it can go. We look forward to new challenges that come with being in a new division and hope to continue where we left off.”

He said he can’t be too sure of how the class looks, being new to it, but he knows Fox Chapel will be tested game in and game out.

Class A

Kiski Area rode a senior-heavy group to an upset win in the 2023 Class A Penguins Cup final.

Kiski Area stayed in the class, but two other semifinalists, including the runner-up Fox Chapel, head up to Double-A. Greensburg Salem remains in Single-A as the only other returning semifinalist from a year ago.

North Hills also moves up after finishing at the top of the Gold Division last season.

Three teams dropped from Double-A: Butler, Meadville and Mars.

Ethan Wiseman of Fox Chapel, who was the ninth-leading scorer in the classification a season ago, moves up to Double-A with the Foxes. That means, like 3A and 2A, the top 10 scorers are gone.

Greensburg Salem’s Carter Cherok and Kiski’s Ethan Bombalski tied for 14th in Class A with 36 points a season ago, and both return.

Greensburg Salem also returns Tristan Gonzalez in the crease. He tied for fifth in the class with 11 winsn. The Golden Lions graduated five players but return a big senior class.

“We’re a senior-heavy team with 10 seniors. It’s by far the biggest senior class that I’ve had,” coach Corey Mentch said. “Obviously, they’re all guys that were on the roster last year for that run to the semifinals and the disappointing end. Those guys are a veteran group. Our starting goalie is our only junior.”

Mentch expects a tough season in a good classification.

“It was interesting the way divisions were split up. All the Double-A teams and the more successful programs from the formula are in ours,” said Mentch. “Both divisions will be competitive from top to bottom. Looks like there’s a lot of offense.”

Over the last several years, that has been the case in Class A. For whatever reason, some of the higher-scoring games and seasons came in Single-A. It has the most teams of any classification, and there’s a good amount of talent.

“It’s going to be a fight for two points every time you take the ice,” Mentch said. “There’s a lot of scoring, and you see some scores get high. I don’t know what to attribute that to, but there’s a lot of skill in Single-A. It’s a fun game to watch.”

In other words, expect fireworks in Single-A games this season.

Division 2

Ringgold won its first championship since 2019 last season in the open division, ending a two-year run for Neshannock at the top of the classification. Division 2 is for co-ops, unlike the programs in the Penguins Cup classifications.

Bishop Canevin won the Gold Division a year ago and was the playoff runner-up to Ringgold, which was champion of the Blue Division in the regular season.

Ryan Saginaw of Bishop Canevin returns after leading Division 2 with 62 points. D2’s second-leading scorer, Kenny Cadwallader of Ringgold, is back as well. He had 58 points and a division-leading 36 goals.

Tanner Heidkamp of Carrick was third in points with 55 and returns, as does fifth-leading scorer Giovanni Valentine of Neshannock, who posted a 46-point campaign.

Ringgold also returns Collin Moffett, who was 12-4-1 a season ago with a 2.35 GAA and a save percentage above .900. It was the second-highest win total in Division 2 between the pipes.

“We need to work smart and hard as we lost a lot of key players from last season,” sRinggold coach Rick Kalinowski said. “Key players to watch out for are Philip Quattrone, Caden Doran, Owen Haywood and returning goaltender Collin Moffett. We are a young team and could make a big impact in the division.

“From what I can tell, a lot of teams are close in talent. This year we are changing our approach to a more defensive-style team versus our past six seasons of run and gun, so to speak.”

Kalinowski said the classification is in for an exciting year.

More High School Hockey

Franklin Regional hockey coach disappointed after being ousted
Pine-Richland hockey caps special season with 4th state championship
Penn-Trafford playoff run ends with loss in Penguins Cup finals
Westmoreland high school notes: Latrobe hockey heads to West Chester
Chartiers Valley stings Greensburg Salem in overtime to win Class A Penguins Cup