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Combined Armstrong hockey program skates into new season

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 1:21 a.m.

It's almost time to break the ice on Armstrong High School athletics.

The combined Kittanning-Ford City hockey program, the first to join forces ahead of the opening of the new high school in 2015, played in the PIHL St. Margaret Foundation Fall Faceoff Tournament last week at BladeRunners in Harmar and now has less than two weeks until its regular-season opener.

The tournament was another part of a lengthy preseason for the team, which has one more scrimmage Monday at Meadville. After that, it will be one week until the season gets under way with Armstrong facing North Hills on Oct. 28 at RMU Island Sports Center.

“(The players) are definitely ready to go. We've been trying to hold them back a little bit,” Armstrong coach Doug Anthony said. “They've been doing cross-fit and conditioning for three months now, and they've been working really hard. We're just trying to get everyone playing as a unit.”

The St. Margaret Tournament was the Riverhawks' first chance to show off their new game uniforms, which were presented to the players Oct. 6. The team is also sporting new blue-and-orange bags and workout shirts, and the players are excited to be the ones ushering in the Armstrong era in their new gear.

“It's exciting to be the first team to be a part of the new school,” sophomore goalie Taylor Smouse said. “Getting the jerseys was real exciting. I like them. They don't have the new logo on them, but we're going to have that on our home jerseys.”

The merged team will play this season in Class AA, a higher classification than either Kittanning or Ford City was in last year. That shouldn't be a problem for the team, which showed during last week's tournament that it can compete with the league's best.

Armstrong played in the toughest of five four-team pools, and faced defending Class AAA state champ North Allegheny, defending Class AAA PIHL runner-up Bethel Park and defending Class A champ Quaker Valley last week.

The Riverhawks ended the tournament with an 0-2-1 record — their point came in a 5-4 overtime loss to North Allegheny — but all three games were settled by two goals or fewer.

“It was quite a tough schedule for us,” Anthony said. “Against Quaker Valley, we were up 5-2, and they came back in the third and exposed some flaws. That will help us as players and coaches to make adjustments and know where we need to improve.”

“It was a really good test for us,” Smouse said. “We played the team we lost to in the semifinals last year with Kittanning (Quaker Valley), and all three games were against hard teams. It's good to get ready for playing in Double-A.”

The biggest thing Anthony wants to see his team improve before the season opener is the way they function as a unit. He said individual breakdowns were the biggest reason the team was unable to get a win in the preseason tournament, but his team has the talent to compete with the best.

“We've implemented a pretty strict defensive system to allow us to create turnovers,” Anthony said. “Against QV, we got away from that in the third period. We became a me-first team, and we need to be a we-team to win.”

But even with the preseason losses, the players are confident they will become the team their coaches want to see. When they do reach that point, the Riverhawks expect the wins will pile up.

“We want to win as many games as possible this year,” Smouse said. “I won't say we're going to be in the state championship, but we want to get there. We know we have the talent to do it if we play well.”

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