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Armstrong hockey advances to Penguins Cup semifinals in 1st year

| Sunday, March 9, 2014, 11:29 p.m.
Armstrong's Hunter Grafton reacts after scoring against Latrobe's Timothy Ruppen in the second period Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Armstrong's Hunter Grafton reacts after scoring against Latrobe's Timothy Ruppen in the second period Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

Armstrong's players united for one goal: a state championship.

The Riverhawks hope to take another step toward it when they face Erie Cathedral Prep at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the PIHL Class AA Penguins Cup semifinals at RMU Island Sports Center.

Already, Armstrong has taken a giant leap forward. Ahead of a consolidation of Ford City and Kittanning high schools starting in 2015-16, the hockey programs merged this season. The transition has been successful.

“It's honestly been really smooth throughout,” senior captain Hunter Grafton said. “We all played together before, so it wasn't a problem, and it's worked out well. Now in the playoffs, things are really coming together for us. The combination couldn't have been better.”

The Riverhawks are a blend of two good hockey teams. Last year, Ford City captured the PIHL Open Class championship, and Kittanning advanced to the PIHL Class A Penguins Cup semifinals. They've been able to come together to find success at the Class AA level this season, including beating defending state champ Latrobe, 7-3, in the first round.

“It's been awesome. It really has been. I couldn't ask for more of a brotherhood. We're always together and having fun when we're not playing,” junior alternate captain Christian Miller said. “I admit, at first, I was really worried. I didn't know what to think. We all realized this is what had to happen. We had a game plan, and we knew a state title would be our goal, so everybody has the same goal.

“We don't go to the same high school, but that doesn't mean that we're not texting or talking to each other or hanging out on the weekends. This group of guys is the closest I have been with. It's great.”

It's not like the players were strangers at the start of the year. A majority of Armstrong's team members grew up learning how to play hockey in the Armstrong Arrows youth program. Others continue to play together on travel teams.

“Basically, everybody knew each other on the team. There wasn't a problem with chemistry,” Grafton said. “It all started in the summer when we worked out twice a week. That's where we started making friends. We've had no problems at all. Everything fit in perfectly, and everyone has accepted their roles on the team.”

The Riverhawks (17-6-1) closed the regular season with four straight wins to finish with the third-most points (33) in Class AA, one behind Cathedral Prep (17-4-2). Grafton led the team with 41 assists and 62 points, which tied for third in the classification. Miller was right behind with 61 points, and his 46 goals led Class AA.

“Overall, it has been pretty easy. We've had a few bumps in the road along the way. We got things ironed out, and I think it showed against Latrobe,” Armstrong coach Doug Anthony said. “We jelled and played for each other.

“That was kind of missing the last month or so. I expect Tuesday's game to be a very good game.”

Bishop Canevin (21-2-0) meets Hampton (14-8-1) at 9 p.m. in the other Class AA semifinal.

NA knocked out

Defending Class AAA Penguins Cup and state champion North Allegheny fell to Penn-Trafford, 5-4, in overtime in a mild upset. The Tigers were the No. 4 seed, and the Warriors were seeded fifth.

Top-seeded Bethel Park (18-3-0) plays Pine-Richland (13-8-1) at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, and second-seeded Peters Township (17-4-0) meets Penn-Trafford (14-8-0) at 8:45 p.m.

Quakers roll

Once again, Quaker Valley (22-1-0) advanced to the semifinals with an 8-1 triumph over South Fayette. The Quakers are the two-time defending Penguins Cup Class A champs. They are 68-2-1 in their last 71 games. They take on Freeport (15-5-2) at 6:45 p.m. Monday.

Mars (18-5-0) meets Thomas Jefferson (16-5-2) at 8:45 p.m. The Planets hope to reach the championship game for the seventh straight season. They won three consecutive titles (2009-11) before Quaker Valley's run.

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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