By Matt Popchock
We've almost closed the book on the basketball playoffs in western Pennsylvania, and while some local boys (and girls) are preparing for the state tournament, the other "boys of winter" are lacing up their skates for the First and Quarterfinal rounds of the 2011 Penguins Cup Playoffs. The puck has dropped on the 2010-11 PIHL postseason, and for 32 teams that dream of playing at the Consol Energy Center, their journey begins now. So without further ado, Mr. High School Sports offers his players to watch and predictions for the playoff lid-lifters coming to a rink near you:
CLASS A FIRST ROUND:
#4 Westmont Hilltop (16-4-1) vs. #5 Quaker Valley (15-6-0) (7:00) - Cambria County War Memorial
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Corey Schafer, Westmont Hilltop (36 G, 31 A; 67 pts. - 1st in Class A); Jason Lottes, Quaker Valley (24 G, 13 A; 37 pts.; G, A in last meeting)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The last time these two teams played at the War Memorial turned out to be a back-and-forth adventure in which the Hilltoppers outlasted the Quakers, and if Schafer gets some good looks at the net, we could be in for another high-scoring affair. But the Quakers' defense has taken a giant step forward this year, partially because of Lottes, and goaltender Zach Gittins is capable of stealing this one. WINNER: QUAKER VALLEY.
#8 Central Valley (7-13-1) vs. #9 Freeport (7-13-1) (7:00) - Beaver County Ice Arena
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tyler Kocis, Central Valley (42 G, 10 A; 52 pts. - 0 pts. in last meeting); Cole Hepler, Freeport (13 G, 12 A; 25 pts. - 0 pts. in last meeting)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: It's been a year of firsts for the new school, which will look for its first post-merger playoff win at home against the Yellowjackets, whom they narrowly escaped at the beginning of the season. The Jackets will likely try to take away Kocis, the top goal-scorer in Class A, the way they did in October, but history suggests it's hard to negate such a dangerous player twice without another one like freshman forward Hepler having an incredible night. WINNER: CENTRAL VALLEY.
CLASS AA FIRST ROUND:
#8 Pine-Richland (9-10-1) vs. #9 Erie Cathedral Prep (8-10-2) (7:30) - Ice Connection of Pittsburgh
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Julian Rizza, Pine-Richland (22 G, 26 A; 48 pts. - 7th in Class AA); Jim Bufalino, Erie Cathedral Prep (19 G, 15 A; 34 pts. - G, A in last two meetings)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: There is young talent up in Erie, some of which belongs to the Ramblers, that excites me and makes me believe that program is turning a corner; Bufalino, who was well-defended in two closely-matched regular season meetings, has a lot of that talent, and his team will need him here. Because although the Rams are another program on the mend, they know how to win in the playoffs, and sometimes a team with young leadership has to learn from failure before it can succeed. WINNER: PINE-RICHLAND.
CLASS AAA FIRST ROUND:
#6 State College (11-7-2) vs. #11 Norwin (8-11-1) (6:15) - Penn State University
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Daniel Moscone, State College (19 G, 13 A; 32 pts. - 3 G, 2 A in last two meetings); Daniel Merz, Norwin (23 G, 17 A; 40 pts. - 7th in Class AAA)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: One thing I learned from watching the Little Lions upset eventual No. 1 seed Fox Chapel during the regular campaign is that they don't have the firepower that the top-tier teams have, but their work ethic more than makes up for it. For the Knights, their best bet is to keep the game low-scoring and hope Merz's line can make a big play here or there, which is easier said than done against this defense. WINNER: STATE COLLEGE.
#7 Pgh. Central Catholic (10-7-3) vs. #10 Hempfield (8-11-1) (7:30) - BladeRunners Ice Complex, Harmarville
PLAYERS TO WATCH: James Pozycki, Pgh. Central Catholic (16 G, 7 A; 23 pts. - G, A in last meeting); Kyle Rosendale, Hempfield (45 G, 24 A; 69 pts. - 1st in Class AAA)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Never count out any team that has one of the most gifted two-way players in the league, and the Spartans certainly carry a trump card in Rosendale, whom they have leaned on to get to the playoffs. Teammate Clay Plyer has done a great job taking the pressure off him, but the Vikings, unlike the Spartans, win with defense, and they win with an exceptional special teams player like Poczyki, not to mention goaltender Brandon Savka, who could make this team a sleeper if he gets hot at the right time. WINNER: CENTRAL CATHOLIC.
#8 McDowell (11-8-1) vs. #9 Shaler (10-8-2) (8:00) - Mercyhurst College
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Ryan Guzek, McDowell (17 G, 12 A; 29 pts. - 0 pts. last meeting); Jacob Hetz, Shaler (28 G, 16 A; 44 pts. - 5th in Class AAA)
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: After he missed much of the season with a leg injury, the Trojans are happy to have Guzek back because they've really had to manufacture offense, and they'll be motivated to win for head coach Nels White, who is reportedly retiring from the program after this season. But even though the Titans took a step backward this year, they still have a lot of size and a lot of offensive talent in brothers Jacob and Josh Hetz that can pose problems for this defense. WINNER: SHALER.
For continuing coverage of the Penguins Cup Playoffs, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports later this week, and be sure to check out the Pittsburgh Youth Hockey Network for all the Penguins Cup scores and brackets!
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