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South Hills Squirt AA squad steams toward postseason

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA goaltender Andrew Pichora IV makes a save off his mask against the Pittsburgh Predators during a game Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward William O'Brien carries the puck up ice during a game Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward Nicholas Massari takes a shot during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward Eddie Pazo looks for an opening to shoot the puck during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward William O'Brien celebrates a goal during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward Eddie Pazo carries the puck up ice during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA goaltender Andrew Pichora IV makes a save during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forwards Luke McLinden, left, and Nicholas Massari celebrate a goal during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt AA forward Eddie Pazo carries the puck up ice during a game against the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Christopher Horner
South Hills Squirt goaltender Andrew Pichora IV and forward Bradley Francis celebrate a 3-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Predators on Jan. 26 at BladeRunners in Bethel Park. Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media

The South Hills Panthers have been in a battle for the top spot in the Pennsylvania Amateur Hockey League's Squirt AA division since October.

The Predators and North Pittsburgh are just two of several teams that have fought with the Panthers in what head coach Keith Reed calls a “very competitive division.”

“Every game will be a challenge down the stretch and into the playoffs,” Reed said. “The whole division is strong. No game has been easy for us, but we've been up for the challenge.”

South Hills beat the Predators, 3-0, on Jan. 26, to improve its impressive PAHL record to 11-1-1.

North Pittsburgh remained undefeated (9-0-1) through January.

The playoffs begin after the regular season concludes Feb. 24. It is an open format, so all 10 teams in the division, regardless of record, are eligible to enter the playoffs.

“They all listen to the coaches well and respond to what we are teaching them,” Reed said. “This is a good group of kids. We are looking forward to the playoffs.”

A group of about five or six players has been on the same team the past several seasons. Others have come from other organizations in the Pittsburgh area or worked their way up through the ranks in the South Hills organization.

One player, Bradley Francis, lives in Peters Township but is a native of Kingston, Ontario.

“They have come together and worked together so well,” Reed said. “They've responded to each other on and off the ice. We did some team-building activities before the season started, and they all became great friends.”

Reed said he had a good feeling this team had the potential to be successful as the start of the season approached.

He said that feeling was developed through their dedication to improving.

“We had a practice at 7 a.m. Sunday (after a win over the Predators on Jan. 26), and every player was there 20 minutes before the practice,” he said.

“They were ready to go. They have a lot of fun with it.”

In addition to their success in PAHL games, the Panthers have enjoyed good results in a couple of tournaments this season.

South Hills went 4-0 to capture the Three Rivers Cup title Nov. 4, and the Panthers edged the Toronto Penguins to claim the first-place trophy.

Reed said the Silver Sticks Tournament in Dayton, Ohio, in early December was a close and competitive tournament, but South Hills wasn't able to win the championship.

A rough tournament experience at the end of December at the North Pittsburgh Wildcat Winter Shootout, Reed said, didn't bring his team down.

“They learned from that tournament and responded in January,” he said.

The Panthers played at the Pittsburgh Midwinter Classic on Jan. 19-21, and after two losses to start the tournament, it won three straight to take the gold.

South Hills beat the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes, 1-0, in overtime in the semifinals, as Eddie Pazo scored the game-winner.

The Panthers topped the St. Jude Knights, a team from Illinois, 2-1, in a shootout in the championship game. Francis scored with 5:59 left in the third period to tie the game.

Goaltender Andrew Pichora stopped four out of five shooters in the shootout, and Keith Reed and Riley Holzer scored for South Hills to secure the championship.

“The tournament wins were a lot of fun hockey to watch and coach,” Keith Reed said.

“We were able to beat a lot of out-of-state teams.

Michael Love is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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