North Xtra: Strong senior class leads Mars to another Pennsylvania Cup championship

HIGH SCHOOL HOCKEY


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Not all of the 10 seniors on the Mars Area hockey team played significant varsity roles as freshmen.

Heck, some of them weren't even on the team.

But that doesn't change the fact that this group will forever be linked to the ascension of the Mars program into one of the premier hockey operations in Western Pennsylvania.

When this senior class entered high school, the Planets had never played in a PIHL Penguins Cup championship game.

Since, this group has known nothing but Penguins Cup final appearances.

But that's only part of what the Mars hockey Class of 2011 accomplished. Over the past four years, Mars has won three Class A Penguins Cups and two Pennsylvania Cups as state champions.

The Planets defeated Springfield Delco, 5-2, on Saturday in West Chester to conclude a 24-1 season in which they won their second consecutive state championship.

"It just really speaks to their hard work and determination," assistant coach Steve Neese said of the Mars seniors. "We always meet real early in the summer for dryland training, and usually our first session they say what their goals are for the season, and the last few years it has been to win states. It's just great that we can accomplish that."

Mike Manganello and Neese coached the Planets in the state championship game because head coach Steve Meyers was on his honeymoon after getting married the week before.

All three coaches are friends, and they took over during the current seniors' sophomore season. The coaches and players promptly teamed up to win the next three Penguins Cups.

"They've been in it for the long haul," Manganello said of the current seniors. "The first Penguins Cup they had to realize what championship hockey is all about. They all accepted their roles at an early age. It's sad to see these guys go, but you've got to move on, and we've got a lot of confidence in the guys who are coming up."

Tyler Stepke had the simplest of the clearly defined roles: Starting goalie. And he did it well.

Stepke allowed only three goals in four postseason games after a regular season in which he had a 1.52 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. His resume includes an 11-1 career record in playoff games. Mars won the Penguins Cup in each of his three seasons since he became a starter.

Stepke was on the roster as a freshman but played only a few minutes throughout that season. Also part of the 2007-08 Planets who played this past Saturday were defenseman Ryan Magdenic and forwards Tyler Thomas and Robbie Sigurdsson -- though Magdenic did not play his sophomore or junior seasons.

Sigurdsson, an alternate captain this season, was among Mars' top scorers the past two seasons. Defenseman Kevin Leslie served as team captain.

Senior Blake Friday was third on the team in assists during the regular season with 21 and was sixth in both points (36) and goals (15).

Friday and fellow seniors Colt Berneburg and Chris Greco were the only players to appear in all 21 regular-season games. Senior Hunter Sacchini was another valuable member of the defense corps.

Senior Walker Enstad backed up Stepke and was extremely effective when he played, having four shutouts among his seven starts and posting a 0.51 goals-against average and .965 save percentage.

Next season's team figures to be built around junior Elliott Tisdale, the other alternate captain. Tisdale was PIHL Class A's leading scorer this season with 68 points (33 goals, 35 assists). It was the second consecutive season he lead Mars in points.

But Tisdale isn't the only offensive threat that figures to return. Sophomore Austin Heakins was second on the team in scoring (43 points), junior Joe Bender averaged more than a goal per game and junior Nick Blaney had a hat trick in the state title game, giving him 22 goals in 18 games (counting playoffs) this season.

"There's definitely a lot of talent coming back," Magdenic said. "We have guys who have been on the team for two or three years and gone through the state and Penguins Cups, and I think all that experience will definitely help them next year."



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