SHAHA 14U hockey team claims national championship
The South Hills Amateur Hockey Association season started Oct. 14, and the Panthers earned a decisive 13-4 victory against the Armstrong Arrows at Belmont Ice Complex.
It ended April 9 with a dramatic 3-2 overtime win against Skaneateles (N.Y.) in the championship game of the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U Nationals held at Northtown Center in Amherst, N.Y.
The Panthers, who competed in the Bantam AA division of the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League and racked up a 54-6-6 overall record in 2017-18, are the first team in the league ever to claim a national title.
PAHL is the local governing body in the MidAm division of the USA Hockey program.
“It's been a truly magical season. I've coached some of these kids for eight years,” coach Brett Adelman said. “We came into this season with lofty goals and high expectations. We battled the injury bug early in the season; at one point we had five skaters out.
“This is not a recruited team. The bulk of this group has never played for another amateur organization other than SHAHA.”
Adelman, who is stepping down from SHAHA coaching, and the Panthers began entertaining national championship thoughts more than a year ago.
“Early last season, we played in the Motown Classic in Detroit,” Adelman said. “It was the first time we played with the elite Tier 2 teams. We went 2-2 at that tournament, but we weren't outclassed. We finished last year ranked 26th in the country.
“I had a meeting with the group of kids I considered to be the team leaders back in April of last year. My first question to them was, ‘What are your goals for next season?' ‘Natty's' was the reply. I asked if the goal was to make nationals or to win nationals? That day we set five goals for the season.”
The SHAHA U14 squad's objectives were to win the PAHL regular season banner, PAHL playoff banner and MidAm banner; go undefeated against Pittsburgh area teams; and win a national championship.
The Panthers, whose home rink is the South Hills YMCA in Bethel Park, achieved all five. They finished the regular season 16-0-4; rolled past Erie, 8-0 and 9-1, at the PAHL and MidAm finals; posted a 33-0-4 record against Pittsburgh area teams; then capped the year with the national crown.
“This team was truly a special group of players that came together to accomplish all the goals they set out to do at the beginning of this season,” SHAHA president Ron Michalak said. “The players, most importantly, are outstanding individuals and just great kids overall, on top of being exceptional hockey players.
“It was great to see them send out Brett Adelman on a high note as he steps away from SHAHA coaching. The kids were ‘all in' to accomplish their national championship, and even when they were down late in the championship (game), you just had a feeling that these kids were going to pull it off.”
The Panthers entered the national playoffs ranked seventh in the country in their division, and made a clean sweep through the five-day tournament.
Down 2-1 late in the title game, SHAHA forward Anthony Carone (Upper St. Clair) netted his second goal of the contest on a power play with 35.8 seconds to go.
Forward Nick Nagy (Belle Vernon), off an assist by forward Hunter Fairman (Thomas Jefferson), then connected on the winning power-play goal in overtime.
“The championship game didn't start our way,” Adelman said. “Skaneateles scored just 11 seconds in. They would add another goal late in the first period to make it 2-0. I had to make a tough decision and change goalies, sending in Kyle Rohrich (Upper St. Clair) to start the second period. Kyle stood on his head, stopping all 30 shots he faced over the next two periods and overtime.
“Skaneateles is a really talented team, and they play with great structure and positioning. We were having trouble generating quality chances. As the clock melted down, I was forced to pull the goalie with about 1:20 left.”
After a couple of icings by Skaneateles, Carone tied the score with just seconds left in regulation.
Rohrich made some huge saves in the overtime session before Skaneateles was assessed a pair of penalties — 38 seconds apart — late in the period, giving the SHAHA squad a 5-on-3 power play.
“Hunter Fairman walked the puck off the left point and fired a pass on the tape to Nick Nagy at the top of the slot,” Adelman said. “Nick took the shot, and from the bench we could all see the netting behind the goalie flex as the (goal) ended our journey. Mayhem ensued.”
SHAHA defeated New Canaan, 2-1; Jersey Shore, 5-3; Chelsea, 8-1; in the round robin portion of the national finals; followed by a 3-0 victory over Greater N.Y. and a 6-4 win over Palmyra in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
“You won't find a closer-knit group of families on any other team in the country,” Michalak said. “The players and parents really care about one another and became one big family on and off the ice, which I believe played a big part in setting a great culture and support structure for the team.
“As they kept winning, more and more people took notice and provided their support from afar. This not only happened with SHAHA families, but through other PAHL organizations and the high schools and communities in which these players also play for.”
SHAHA is one of the larger PAHL members, fielding two 18U, one 16U, six 14U, five 12U, five 10U, six 8U and two girls teams.
The national champion U14 squad was dominated by Upper St. Clair residents; seven of the players are from USC — forwards Jacob Ball, Zachary Fairfill, Colton Shiry and Carone; defenseman Jake Adelman; as well as both goaltenders — Rohrich and Charlie Eberle.
The defensive corps consisted of Jeremy Buehler (Bethel Park), Ryan Gates (Mt. Lebanon), Brady Rotolo (Thomas Jefferson), Kirk Stewart (South Park), Hunter Suarez (Ringgold) and Jake Adelman.
Rounding out the squad were forwards Zach Kalinowski (Ringgold), Carson Kress (Baldwin), Tanner Mahoney (Peters Township), Tyler Mahoney (Peters Township), Nagy and Fairman.
Carone finished in a tie for most points (15) at nationals; Rohrich led all goaltenders with four wins.
Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.