Mars on a mission to win fourth consecutive Penguins Cup
Former Latrobe hockey coach Dan Ridder knows just how tough it is to win four Penguins Cups in a row.
"That target on your back gets bigger and bigger," said Ridder, who stepped down following last season, when his Wildcats failed in their bid for a fourth straight Class AA title, losing on an overtime goal in the semifinals.
"It's a difficult thing to do," he said of repeating. "It's tough to keep everyone focused just on the next game."
For that reason, Ridder wishes Mars luck as the Class A Planets prepare for the new PIHL season, which begins Monday.
Mars can become the first team to win four consecutive Penguins Cups since Peters Township dominated Class AA from 2002-05. It's been far longer since a Class A team managed the feat, with Bishop McCort winning four straight from 1994-97.
"It would be really cool to do," said senior forward Nick Blaney, who had 17 goals and 19 assists in the regular season last year. "Going 4 for 4 isn't something that happens often."
Blaney, along with Austin Heakins (43 points in 2010) and Joe Bender (39), is part of a trio of high-scoring seniors that should buoy an excellent top line for the Planets. But this Mars team, in the early going at least, might be defined more by what it lost than what it brings back.
Ten seniors graduated from last year's squad that finished 24-1 and won a second consecutive state title. That group includes goaltender Tyler Stepke, who was arguably the best at his position in the league.
Equal to loss of Stepke, defenseman Eliot Tisdale won't be returning for his senior season. Coach Steve Meyers said last year's leading scorer in Class A is focusing on his amateur team and academics.
As a result, there may be more struggles than usual, but there will be no excuses.
"The standard for the team doesn't change," Meyers said. "We expect to be very competitive this season."
Still, the departure of Tisdale highlights one of Mars' largest question marks: How well will the defense reload?
Seniors Bryan Thomas and Greg Makozy are the only returning defensemen for the Planets. The inexperience at the blue line means the team might be altering its approach.
"In years past, we've been blessed that we haven't had to focus so much on the defensive system, and we could play aggressive and attack the net," Meyers said. "With the talent we've lost, we haven't been able to rely on veteran defensemen and Tyler. We may have to tweak our lower lines."
In goal, the only tweaking will be a first name. Sophomore Alex Stepke, Tyler's brother, is stepping into his sibling's skates as the Planets' top netminder after starting on the freshman team a year ago.
"I feel some pressure because my brother won two state titles and three Penguins Cups," Alex said. "But I talk to my brother a lot, and he just tells me to do my best."
He has a vote of confidence from his coach.
"We've stressed that we don't need him to be Tyler; he just needs to be an effective goaltender," Meyers said. "He reminds me of Tyler at that age. He's rough around the edges, but the talent is there."
That could be the best way to defend the Planets this year, let alone one player.
Either way, Mars has at least one person rooting for them who knows all about facing the ups and downs of trying to maintain a dynasty.
"I wish them well," Ridder said. "It would be a great accomplishment."
What to watch for
The PIHL regular season begins Monday. Here's a glimpse at what the season will offer:
Defending champion: Upper St. Clair
Contenders: Canon-McMillan, North Allegheny, Bethel Park, Peters Township
Players to watch: Jacob Hetz, F, Jr., Shaler; Stephen Gielarowski, F, Sr., Upper St. Clair; Dan Kucerovy, D, Sr., Bethel Park; Alex Baskakov, D, Sr., Canon-McMillan; Tyler Fannie, G, Sr., Fox Chapel
Outlook: Upper St. Clair broke a two-decade drought without a Penguins Cup last year, but repeating will be a challenge after heavy graduation losses. Not to mention, Section 1 rivals Canon-McMillan and Bethel Park will be formidable. And with former Class AA team Peters Township moving up, it should be the best section in the PIHL. Elsewhere, North Allegheny and Shaler bring back talent and are looking to build on positive 2010-11 campaigns. Fox Chapel will be an interesting team to follow. After making one of the biggest turnarounds in recent memory last year -- taking the top seed in the playoffs -- what will the Foxes do for an encore?
Defending champion: Bishop Canevin
Contenders: Chartiers Valley, Latrobe, West Allegheny, Kiski Area
Players to watch: Justin Sabilla, F, Sr., Chartiers Valley; Matt Walsh, F, Sr., Bishop Canevin; Taylor Siwik, F, Jr., Gateway; Jason Kumpfmiller, G, Sr., West Allegheny; Shane Brudnok, G, Jr., Latrobe
Outlook: Eight of the 13 teams in this class finished over .500 last year, and nearly that many have a legitimate chance at the Penguins Cup this season. Look for reigning champ Bishop Canevin and Chartiers Valley to have a tight race in Section 2 -- and possibly for the top seed in the playoffs. Chartiers Valley's Noah Stevenson also joins Kumpfmiller and Brudnok as the elite in what may be the class with the best goaltending. After a year spent resetting the program at the junior varsity level, North Hills, a former AAA program, returns to varsity play. Kiski Area, long a dominant Open Class team, is also new to AA.
Defending champion: Mars
Contenders: Kittanning, Serra Catholic, Hampton, Quaker Valley
Players to watch: Tyler Speis, F, Jr., Serra Catholic; Corey Schafer, F, Sr., Westmont Hilltop; Luke Leya, F, Jr., Hampton; Nick Blaney, F, Sr., Mars; Cameron Langham, G, Jr., Kittanning
Outlook: Might we see a Class A power shift• With three-time defending champion Mars rebuilding its defense after tough graduation losses, the longtime also-rans are lining up. Serra Catholic, though facing an uncertain situation at goaltender, should make a deep playoff run with some good offensive talent returning. Kittanning, one win away from a championship appearance last year, brings back an elite scorer in Heinz Koster and one of the class' best goaltenders in Langham, a 20-game winner in 2010. Last year's Penguins Cup runner-up, Hampton, will vie for a title again, with its top three scorers returning.
Defending champion: John Marshall (W.Va.)
Contenders: Ford City, Greensburg Salem, Hollidaysburg, Harborcreek
Players to watch: Macky Power, F, Jr., Hollidaysburg; Sean Beichner, F, Sr., Greensburg Salem; Kevin Valasek, D, Sr., Ford City; Doug Simon, F, Sr., Quigley; Andrew Boshchert, G, Sr., Greensburg Salem
Outlook: Kiski Area, winner of the past two Chiefs Cups and loser of the past two Open Cups, is now in Class AA, but Baldwin, Beaver, Central Valley and Indiana are new this season to the Open Class. Traditional power Ford City has the talent and experience to chase a title -- as does Greensburg Salem, home to last year's top goal scorer, Beichner, who had 51 scores. Wheeling Central Catholic has lost 12 seniors from a roster that went 20-0 in the regular season. Reigning Nailers Cup and Open Cup champ John Marshall, however, lost just five seniors.