PIHL teams prepare for life outside Open division
New Baldwin hockey coach Craig Albert recalled that during his days as a Highlanders player in the late 1990s, the team typically started out 0-4. A tradition of opening the season with Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and Meadville spelled trouble.
“It was already on a decline by then,” Albert said of Baldwin's program.
Because of the classification in which Baldwin spent the past three seasons, Albert believes the Highlanders might soon grow strong enough to challenge its traditionally strong South Hills neighbors in the near future.
This season will indicate whether Baldwin and other burgeoning or rebuilt programs, products of the PIHL's Open Class experiment, return to traditional classifications with the abilities to achieve at high levels.
The PIHL's Open Class, created in 2004 as a way to help programs grow in both talent and numbers, no longer exists. There's a new classification known as Division II in which programs, many of whom draw players from multiple school districts, can mature without suffering at the hands of opponents that are much further along in the development process.
Meanwhile, Baldwin, Hempfield, Keystone Oaks and others — known as “pure” programs because they consist of players from their district only — are out of the Open Class and now must compete for Penguins Cup berths in Class A, Class AA or Class AAA.
PIHL games begin Monday.
“Every game is probably going to be a tight game,” said Albert, an assistant a season ago when the Highlanders went 22-1-1 and outscored opponents 235-52 on the way to an Open Class championship. “I don't see (blowouts) happening this year. We might be on the receiving end of a couple of those games; you never know.”
Baldwin enters this season in Class AA; the other five former Open Class teams that moved into traditional classifications— Gateway, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield, Keystone Oaks and Wheeling Park — are in Class A.
“I'm happy that we're out of the Open Class,” said senior forward and captain Brian Dee, the top goal scorer (47 goals, 25 assists) among the Highlanders, who graduated just two players last season. “To say the least, it was a joke. ... But I think our time being in there was good for us, because it helped us rebuild and get the program back to where we are now.”
That's a sentiment shared by the other large districts that spent time in the Open Class. Hempfield, which had been in and out of the division during the past decade, went 19-4 last season. Gateway, even though it finished 5-15, planned to leave the Open Class after one year. And first-year Greensburg Salem coach Jason DeTesta, whose team competed in the Open Class for years and enjoyed considerable success, jumped at the chance to push his program in Class A rather than keep it with co-op teams in Division II.
“We look at this as an opportunity to change the perception of Greensburg Salem hockey,” DeTesta said. “I do feel that the old standard for the Open division needed some work. I think they let too many programs, and Greensburg Salem was one of them, hang around and hang around when they maybe could've been maturing faster.”
An idea put forth by Dave Fryer, the PIHL's realignment point main, and endorsed by new commissioner Jim Black should help the PIHL separate strong programs from stagnant ones.
In April, the PIHL board of governors approved a proposal that recommended classifications should account for more than just enrollment numbers.
Fryer and the competition committee created a formula that attempts to establish the most competitive environment in each classification. The formula, which produced this season's alignment, adds a school's enrollment figure to its win percentage from each of the past three seasons. Each of those win percentages is multiplied by a weighted figure, though — win percentages in Class AAA are multiplied by 1000, those in Class AA by 600, those in Class A by 360, and those in the Open Class by 216.
The totals produced by the formula are then listed from highest to lowest, and the class cutoff scores are determined by PIHL officials.
“The majority of the teams were in favor of what we were doing, and we put them where they belong,” Fryer said. “And even if they didn't like it, many of them know this is where they truly belong.”
Count Keystone Oaks coach John McCarthy among the few who wonder if their teams are ready for life outside of the Open Class. The Golden Eagles joined the PIHL in 2008 as Open Class members and found some success, though they went 5-15 last season.
Following both good years and bad ones, their numbers never grew too large. This winter, they enter Class A with 15 players, four of whom are seniors and two of whom are goalies.
“I understand what the PIHL is trying to do,” McCarthy said. “But for us, and I think we might be one of the only schools in this situation, we weren't successful in the Open Class last year, so being told to move up a class isn't going to help us very much.
“I think, moving forward, they'll get this right. ... It's going to take some time, and our program might be a casualty.”