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Team defense carries Predators Squirt hockey team to success

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
DEAN M. BEATTIE
Pittsburgh Predators forward Jarren Kelly controls the puck, staying ahead of the North Hills Vipers' Logan Schlegel during their game Dec. 1 at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon. DEAN M. BEATTIE | FOR TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
DEAN M. BEATTIE
Pittsburgh Predators forward Jarren Kelly is upended by the North Hills Vipers' Logan Schlegel during their game Dec. 1 at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon. DEAN M. BEATTIE | FOR TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
DEAN M. BEATTIE
Pittsburgh Predators forward Bray Sehnert carries the puck across the ice with support from teammate Jarren Kelly as the North Hills Vipers' Alex Pampena gives chase during their game Dec. 1 at the Ice Castle in Castle Shannon. DEAN M. BEATTIE | FOR TRIB TOTAL MEDIA

The standard goals of most youth hockey coaches include developing players and driving home fundamentals.

Pittsburgh Predators Squirt AA coach Jeff Hale set an additional goal early in the season for his team: Win a tournament.

It wasn't long before his group of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds hit that target, winning the Pittsburgh Preseason Challenge in late September. A new objective was needed.

“We beat a team from the Toronto area, which is always a great feat,” Hale said. “Now, we want to win our division and playoffs.”

That would make for a repeat Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League title for these players, who won the Squirt A championship last season.

At the highest Squirt level this fall — and with just three players from last year's group moving on to the Pee Wee level — the Predators carried a 23-game league unbeaten streak into last weekend's games.

The Predators (3-0-2) skew older for a Squirt team, featuring 10 players at age 10, four at 9 and two who play up at 8.

That experience has the squad playing some of the best defense in its league, and goaltender Chace Hale had a 1.20 goals-against average along with a league-leading two shutouts through the team's first five games.

“The thing I'm most proud of is we have a good, solid, well-rounded team,” Jeff Hale said. “They recognize a lot more goes into success than scoring goals.”

Goal scoring certainly helps, though. Braedon Ford leads the balanced Predators with five goals, while Blake George, Jarren Kelly, Bray Sehnert and Evan Victor have a team-high three assists apiece.

Hale believes the squad's continued success comes from the players adopting an uncomplicated message preached by the coaches.

“We break it down into three aspects of the game we emphasize,” Hale said. “One is skills; that's what we practice each week. The second is smarts, and that's hockey knowledge. The other is heart.”

All three aspects will be called on as the schedule begins to heat up over the next month. But their fast start this fall has the Predators feeling good about the coming winter.

“It's important to get that early-season momentum,” Hale said. “But it's also important to bear in mind it's a long season.

“We try to break it up for the kids and not make every practice serious. We try to have some fun.”

Dan Stefano is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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