Starting last season 3-7-4, Bethel Park had to rally to get a decent seed in the PIHL Class AAA Penguins Cup playoffs.
The Black Hawks entered the tournament as the No. 6 team, but behind the play of tireless defenseman Jacob Brown and goaltender Alex Blum, they upset North Allegheny, Penn-Trafford and Peters Township on their way to their seventh Penguins Cup title.
The offense for the defending champions is mostly back, led by Derek Lesnak, who had 36 points last season and scored the winning goal in Bethel Park's 2-1 triple-overtime win against North Allegheny in the Penguins Cup quarterfinals.
But defensively, the Black Hawks will have to replace Blum and Brown, who was the Post-Gazette Player of the Year last season after playing nearly every minute in the playoff run.
Bethel Park coach Jim McVay is looking for defenseman Austin Jameyson to play his way up to Brown's role, while Austin McGinty will try to fill the void in goal.
"Our defense is going to be key," McVay said. "We need our players to develop into their roles. We're going to work hard every day and see where it takes us."
North Allegheny coach Jim Black said that no matter what losses Bethel Park suffered, it can never be counted out.
"Bethel Park will be there in the end," he said. "Coach McVay always has them working hard. They are always in the best shape of any team."
The Tigers figure to be there in the end, too, or at least, they will decide who is going to win the Penguins Cup. In each of the past four seasons, the team that has eliminated North Allegheny in the playoffs has gone on to win the title.
"The Penguins Cup goes through North Allegheny," Black said, jokingly.
The Tigers will have a senior-laden team this year. They have 10 seniors who played last season, including the top four scorers. The Tigers looked good at the St. Margaret's Foundation Fall Faceoff preseason tournament, winning the title without their top defenseman, Harry Kramer, who Black said is likely out until December after breaking his broken collarbone.
North Allegheny beat Canon-McMillan in the championship of the St. Margaret's tournament. Although Bethel Park ended up winning the Penguins Cup, Canon-McMillan won the title in loaded Section 1-AAA last season, beating out Peters Township, the Black Hawks and Upper St. Clair.
The Big Macs return Anthony Tonkovich, who registered 46 points last season. Tonkovich had eight assists at the St. Margaret's tournament and scored the team's only goals in a 4-2 title game loss to North Allegheny. Tonkovich's teammate, James Oddi, scored a tournament-best 12 goals.
Peters Township, which was a Penguins Cup finalist last season, returns its second-leading scorer in Trevor Recktenwald but the majority of last season's team graduated. Upper St. Clair, which won the 2011 state title, still has its goaltender from that team, Michael Ambrose.
Penn-Trafford was the No. 1 seed in last season's Penguins Cup tournament but is missing three of the top four scorers in the classification. In fact, Jake Miller is the only player the Warriors return from last season's varsity roster.
Norwin was a Penguins Cup quarterfinalist last season and has one of the best offensive players in the league in Dan Merz. The Knights won the preseason Greensburg Central Catholic tournament.
Pittsburgh Central Catholic was a section champion last season and has two starters returning, Neil Carlton and Jesse Yeckel, who missed most of 2011-12 with injuries.
Cathedral Prep of Erie with standouts such as Jimmy Bufalino and Jack and Joe Kelly, is favored to win the Class AA title.
West Allegheny won the classification's Penguins Cup title last season, but 11 seniors have graduated and a rising junior, Matt Grebosky, is focusing on playing amateur hockey only.
"You can't replace them," West Allegheny coach Timon Veach said. "They had a lot of experience. But we have talent on this team."
Two freshmen, Jess Ligas and Sean Weber, were the top scorers for West Allegheny at the St. Margaret's tournament. Mason Ervin, a four-year starter, is West Allegheny's leading returning scorer from last season with 18 points.
Perennial power Bishop Canevin will be in the mix again and looking to make history early in the season. The Crusaders need two wins to join Kittanning and Upper St. Clair as the only Western Pennsylvania hockey programs to reach 500 all-time wins.
Penguins Cup semifinalist Pine-Richland has a combined 15 juniors and seniors on the roster this season, led by junior defenseman Kyle Cunningham and senior forwards Zack Richey and Dillon Kessy.
Greater Latrobe beat out Pine-Richland for the Section 4-AA title and returns a great duo in goaltender Shane Brudnok and forward Josh Singley, who led the St. Margaret's tournament in scoring.
Chartiers Valley lost 53-goal scorer Justin Sabilla, but returns second-leading scorer Anthony Franks and some talented defensemen.
Hampton, a Penguins Cup semifinalist in Class A last season, moves up a level this season and is expected to be competitive in Class AA.
Quaker Valley will be the favorite this season after winning the Penguins Cup and state championship last season.
The Quakers lost goaltender Doug Revak to graduation and star defenseman John Pilewicz to an amateur team, but have a strong nucleus returning.
Seniors Ryan Dickson and Clayton Bouchard combined for 83 points in the 2011-12 season. Junior Ryan Lottes also is back to stabilize the team's blue line.
Mars, who lost to Quaker Valley in the Penguins Cup final last season, lost its four top scorers, but has goaltenders Christian Knapp and Alex Stepke back. The duo went 16-2 last season.
Kittanning reached the Penguins Cup semifinals for the third year in a row last season and returns two 60-plus point scorers in Christian Miller and Hunter Grafton.
Quigley Catholic won the Nailers and Open Cup titles last season, but lost its top two scorers, Doug Simon and Nick Santiago, as well as its name.
The team formerly known as Quigley, will go by the name of Ambridge this season. The team is operates under a "co-op" agreement and has players from several schools.
Baldwin won 15 of its 20 games last regular season and returns Dakota Becker, who scored 34 points as a freshman in 2011-12.
One intriguing team could be Greensburg Salem. The Golden Lions return their second-leading scorer, Cody Austad, and add Ligonier Valley's leading scorer, Jonathan Finger, since the two schools are playing under a co-op agreement this season.
1. North Allegheny
2. Bethel Park
4. Peters Township
5. Upper St. Clair
1. Erie Cathedral Prep
3. West Allegheny
4. Bishop Canevin
5. Chartiers Valley
1. Quaker Valley
3. Serra Catholic
5. Westmont Hilltop
Michael Ambrose, Upper St. Clair, G, Sr.; Shane Brudnok, Latrobe, G, Sr.; Kyle Cunningham, Pine-Richland, D, Jr.; Ryan Dickson, Quaker Valley, F, Sr.; Joe Griffin, North Allegheny, F, Sr.; Trevor Handlovitch, Moon, F, Sr.; Harry Kramer, North Allegheny, D, Sr.; Derek Lesnak, Bethel Park, F, Jr.; Ryan Lottes, Quaker Valley, D, Jr.; Dan Merz, Norwin, F, Sr.; Christian Miller, Kittanning, F, Soph.; James Oddi, Canon-McMillan, F, Jr.; Trevor Recktenwald, Peters Township, F, Sr.; Anthony Tonkovich, Canon-McMillan, F, Sr.; Andrew Walters, Plum, F, Sr.
First Published October 26, 2012 4:00 AM