PIHL's reigning champions face tough roads to repeat
Last March, West Allegheny hockey coach Tim Veach openly bemoaned that his team had little time to savor the school's first PIHL Penguins Cup championship.
Now that a new PIHL season is upon them, Veach refuses to let his Indians reminisce at all.
“They have to come into the season not thinking of themselves as defending champions,” he said. “They just need to want to have a good season.”
Reigning Class AA champion West Allegheny opens its season against rival Moon on Thursday — three days after the PIHL's opening night. Nineteen games at 13 sites over four classifications will be played Monday.
“It's a fun time of year,” said Quaker Valley coach Kevin Quinn, whose team won the Class A Penguins Cup last season. “We're excited.”
Thanks to a scheduling quirk caused by teams from the eastern side of the state, the Pennsylvania Cup state championship games were played the day after the Penguins Cup contests last season. West Allegheny beat Erie Cathedral Prep, 4-3, for the PIHL Class AA title March 24. The following day, the Indians lost, 4-3, to Council Rock South.
Even in the aftermath of the best season in Indians history, Veach isn't letting anyone associated with the program feel satisfied.
“We lost the last game of the season last year — that's what I've been telling them,” he said. “We're real proud of what the team did last year, but we fell short of the ultimate goal. Guys on the team, they want to win the state championship this year.
“But let's be honest — 12 of the guys on this year's team weren't on last year's team. They have no idea they have a target on their back, which of course they do.”
Being the reigning champion carries with it something of a burden, said Bethel Park coach Jim McVay, whose team won Class AAA last season.
“I think it's tougher going into it as defending champions because everybody's gunning for you,” he said. “For a lot of teams, you're the mark on their schedule rather than just another game. It's definitely harder, and we have a ton of new kids who have been placed in a tough situation because they aren't the defending champs. Really, it's sort of a whole new team.”
Bethel Park's title was its seventh overall and fifth in the past 12 years. Quaker Valley, the only PIHL team to win its state-title game, has won the Class A Penguins Cup three times since 2006. Quinn said he has learned over the years how to approach the season after a championship.
“I want the kids to be more prepared than we were in '07 from a coaching perspective,” he said. “That year, we ran through the league and then lost the Penguins Cup in a game that we shouldn't have lost. So the key is to win the last game, and everything we do this year is predicated on being prepared for the playoffs.”
A preview of the PIHL's 2012-13 campaign:
Bethel Park lost nine seniors but returns its top three scorers from a team that had a 14-game winning streak through the Penguins Cup title game last season. The Black Hawks actually finished third in Section 1 behind PIHL runner-up Peters Township and section champion Canon-McMillan.
The Big Macs return leading scorer Anthony Tonkovich and goalie Ryan Christian. They're so loaded that they're fielding an unprecedented second varsity team, which will compete in the Open Class.
McVay tabbed North Allegheny as “clearly the team to beat.” The Tigers won the prestigious St. Margaret preseason tournament earlier this month, beating Bethel Park and Canon-McMillan along the way.
“With the amount of seniors we have and the talent we have, I think our deal is if we can stay healthy,” Tigers coach Jim Black said. “The injuries are creeping in already and, with 17-minute periods this season (as opposed to 15 in the past), depth is an issue for everybody.”
West Allegheny won last season, but Latrobe still has players with state championship experience. The Wildcats won both the Penguins Cup and Pennsylvania Cup each season from 2008 to '10.
Latrobe beat West Allegheny, Bethel Park and Class AAA power Mt. Lebanon at the St. Margaret tournament while advancing to the semifinals. Josh Singley has been one of Class AA's top offensive players the past three years, and goalie Shane Brudnok has been a standout since his freshman year, too.
Hampton, a Class A semifinalist last season, moved up to AA. Bishop Canevin, which won the Penguins Cup two years ago, again will contend.
“Depth might be an issue this year for us,” Crusaders coach Kevin Zielmanski said.
Quaker Valley and Mars have won the Penguins Cup six of the past seven seasons, and the Quakers and Planets are expected to be powerful again.
Quaker Valley graduated four seniors from last season's title-winning team and also lost defenseman Jake Pilewicz to a junior league. But seniors Clayton Bouchard, Ryan Dickson and Stephen Wei and junior Ryan Lottes are among the top returning players.
“I think (Class A) is deeper than it was last year,” Quinn said. “More than half the league can beat anybody on any given night.”
Serra Catholic, Kittanning, Westmont Hilltop and Freeport also are expected to contend.
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.