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Local high school hockey lineup shuffled

| Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Fox Chapel hockey program's 40th anniversary will be remarkable for a surprising reason — the Foxes won't put a varsity team on the ice for the first time in their history.

Because of a low turnout of upperclassmen, Fox Chapel will compete only at junior varsity and freshman levels this winter. The Foxes started play in 1972 and were one of the first high school teams in Western Pennsylvania.

“They're a legendary association,” Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League commissioner Ed Sam said. “I'm surprised they're not able to field a team. I'm sure they'll come back in the future and come back strong.”

The PIHL season begins Monday, and there are several significant changes locally and league-wide.

Deer Lakes, another area team with a long history, rejoined the varsity ranks after a one-year absence.

Knoch also dropped its varsity team but still has jayvee and freshman squads.

Also, the PIHL increased each period from 15 to 17 minutes, meaning a team's conditioning could play a bigger role in tight games this season.

The six local varsity teams are Class AA Kiski Area and Plum; Class A Deer Lakes, Freeport and Kittanning; and Open Class Ford City.

Knoch went 3-16 in Class A last season, and Fox Chapel was 6-16 in Class AAA.

“I think it's a low cycle for us,” Fox Chapel Hockey Club president Gary Reagan said. “We looked at it, and if we had fielded a varsity team, it would have been heavy on ninth- and 10th-graders. We wouldn't have had enough experience. We're hoping it's just a one-year aberration.”

Two years ago, Deer Lakes finished 1-20 in Class A. Last season, the Lancers' jayvees compiled a 13-4-1 record, and their freshman team went 18-0-1 en route to the PIHL championship, providing hope for the future. There are 18 players on Deer Lakes' roster this year.

“I'm expecting to be competitive,” Deer Lakes coach Todd Luniewski said. “That's our goal. We're a young team. We have a lot of firepower in 10th and 11th grade. We have some strong leadership up top. It's time to go back to varsity. We used last year as a developmental year.”

In Class AA, Plum (12-11) advanced to the PIHL quarterfinals last season. The experience-laden Mustangs feature senior forwards Andrew Walters (36 goals, 14 assists) and Jordan Gable (10-25) and senior goaltender Taylor Cestra (0.86 save percentage, 4.58 goals-against average). Cestra is one of several girls playing in the league.

Kiski Area (3-17-1) was realigned into Class AA last season after six years in the Open Class, which is for new and rebuilding teams, and struggled. However, the Cavaliers return several key players and could be ready to take a step forward.

In Class A, Freeport (11-8-2) and Kittanning (14-6-1) were stopped in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. Both teams possess solid offensive talent.

Kittanning sophomore forward Christian Miller (39-30) and junior forward Hunter Grafton (24-44) and Freeport junior forward Cole Hepler (18-17) produced outstanding numbers last season. However, Freeport graduated veteran goaltender Cody Lee, while Kittanning returns senior Cameron Langham in net.

In the Open Class, Ford City (18-3-1) figures to be among the contenders for the title. Senior forward Jesse Valasek (28-30) is one of the top offensive players in that class.

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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