High school hockey preview: North Allegheny's prospects bit of a mystery

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, 10:21 p.m.

Even with his top five scorers from last year gone, North Allegheny hockey coach Jim Black doesn't want to switch to a more conservative system.

But he will.

“With the group I had last year, I could allow them to be a little more wide-open,” Black said. “But if we start turning the puck over in the neutral zone and have trouble keeping a third guy high, you'll see a more conservative system come into play.”

The PIHL regular season begins this week, and there's perhaps no bigger question than what to make of North Allegheny. The Tigers won Penguins and Pennsylvania cups last season, then a mass exodus followed.

Sure, goaltender Bradford Thornburgh and his league-leading goals-against average and save percentage didn't go anywhere. But the Tigers' big five — Cody Black, Charlie Johnson, Connor Cash, Matt Fantaski and Joe Griffin — graduated; Marty Hubert and Dom Zangaro are the only two returning forwards with significant experience. They combined for 24 regular-season points in 2012-13.

Will Renecamp, Christian Lauria and Dan Bustito return to anchor the Tigers' blue line, which will be without Shawn Baird and Harry Kramer.

“I know people are considering it a rebuilding year. But we're going to do the best we can to improve every game,” said Thornburgh, who went 3-0 with a 1.29 goals-against average in the playoffs last season. “The young guys are listening. They're showing they can play at this level.”

Seneca Valley, Butler, Bethel Park, Peters Township and Canon-McMillan are expected to contend with North Allegheny.

Goaltender Tanner Pfeffer and forward Chris Marziotto return for Seneca Valley, which turned a few heads by winning the prestigious St. Margaret Foundation Fall Faceoff tournament.

Bethel Park, the 2012 Class AAA champion, lost to North Allegheny by a goal in the semifinals and returns arguably the PIHL's most dynamic player in Christian Siak (36 goals, 12 assists, 48 points). Also watch Derek Lesnak's switch back to forward from defense.

Peters Township, which has reached the PIHL finals three consecutive years, brings back goaltender Brian Baker (14-3 and 2.23 GAA in regular season), forward Adam Alavi (23 goals, 28 assists, 51 points), among several other talented players.

Canon-McMillan has a new coach — former NHL defenseman Terry Virtue. Forwards J.D. Oddi and Austin Tonkovich should keep the Big Macs in the mix.

Last season's Penguins Cup runner-up, Pine-Richland, moved to Class AAA.

Defensemen Kyle Cunningham and Tyler Ziegler, as well as forwards Ryan Cole, Nick Jenkins and Andrew Vislosky will try to replace the 109 combined points the Rams got from Dillon Kessy and Zach Richey.

Class AA

When Latrobe won three consecutive state championships from 2008-10, the Wildcats counted on forward Josh Singley, defenseman Rob Vasinko and goaltender Shane Brudnok.

All three graduated, but few expect the Wildcats to falter.

Offensively, the Wildcats welcome back Dalton Hunter, Nathan Winebrenner, Adam Ferguson, Brendan Johns and captain Chris Johnson.

Those five combined for 70 goals last season and return as five of the Wildcats' top seven scorers from a season ago.

Junior Tim Ruppen takes over for Brudnok, who led Class AA in almost every goaltending category.

“They know we've got the target on our back and have got to work hard,” Latrobe coach John Winebrenner said. “The team goal is to get back to states and repeat.”

Chartiers Valley junior forwards Anthony Franks and Cullen McMahon finished first and second in regular-season scoring in 2012-13 with 66 and 65 points, respectively. Both return.

The Colts, who've lost in the Penguins Cup semifinals three straight years, must address the graduation of goaltender Noah Stevenson.

Hampton should contend behind goaltender Cam Raidna and forward Zach Kosick (31 goals, 18 assists, 49 points).

Bishop Canevin, the fourth semifinalist in 2012-13, returns goaltender Nikita Meskin. The Crusaders will find out early this week whether talented forward Randy Unger is playing for the Pens Elite U-18 team.

Kittanning, a Class A semifinalist last winter, has merged with Ford City to form Armstrong. Seniors Christian Miller (82 points, 45 goals) and Hunter Grafton (81 and 38) return.

Class A

Quaker Valley has won 45 consecutive games against PIHL teams, including the past three Class A Penguins Cup titles.

Leading scorer senior Jimmy Perkins (69 points) returns. Same for Connor Quinn, who had 57 regular-season points as a freshman. Junior Adam Pilewicz (66 points) is playing amateur hockey, but defenseman Ryan Lottes is one of the league's best.

“Our best player is Lottes,” Quaker Valley coach Kevin Quinn said. “He is a defenseman that can shut down the other team's top scorers.

“He is an all-around tremendous hockey player.”

Mars, which has reached six consecutive PIHL finals, lost to Quaker Valley in the championship game.

The Planets return senior forward Craig Mazzotta and junior defenseman Ian Houk-Graves.

Thomas Jefferson should be in the mix with the return of forward Zach Uhlyar (67 points) and defenseman Kevin Ringling. Goaltender Nick Ripepi led the classification with 13 wins but must cut down his 4.34 goals-against average.

Junior Zach Luniewski (21-23-44) is back for Deer Lakes, which won its first playoff game in a decade.

Alex Oltmanns and Nathan Smith contributed. Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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