Junior goaltender Tanner Pfeffer is a PIHL All-Star and one of the main reasons Seneca Valley is relevant again after back-to-back poor seasons.
It has been a journey for Pfeffer, however, to find his place among the best goaltenders in the league.
As a freshman, Pfeffer tried out for the varsity team that was coached by Denis Kirstein. But Pfeffer said Kirstein assigned him to the Raiders junior varsity team.
"I wasn't too sure why," Pfeffer said. "I was pretty disappointed."
So the young netminder decided to concentrate on AAA amateur hockey for the Pittsburgh Predators for the past two years until this past offseason when Kirstein left for Upper St. Clair and Anthony Raco took over as Seneca Valley's head coach.
After the coaching change, Pfeffer said he started getting calls and e-mails from Raco to come try out again for Seneca Valley. Wanting to play with his classmates, he decided to go to tryouts and he made the team.
Now Seneca Valley is back to competing for Penguins Cup titles after spending the previous two seasons trying to stay out of the league's cellar.
Pfeffer is 7-4-1 with a 3.07 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, helping the Raiders to 10 victories this season. Seneca Valley (10-4-1) had a combined six wins the previous two seasons.
"He's really key for us," Raco said. "I told a reporter earlier this year, his preparation for games is the best I've ever seen. He practices the way he wants to play in games. In practice, he wants to stop every puck and the other players pick up on that attitude."
Pfeffer can't afford to have an off day for the Raiders when they play against the top teams in the league. Despite entering the week second in points in Class AAA, Seneca Valley was only eighth in the league in goals scored. So much of the pressure comes down on the defense and Pfeffer.
Five of Pfeffer's seven wins have come in one-goal games, and that doesn't include a 60-save performance he had in a 2-2 tie against Canon-McMillan on Nov. 21.
"Whether it's 60 shots or 30 shots, he's so consistent," Raco said. "He wants to stop them all and looks at every shot the same way.
"He doesn't get frustrated if we're giving up a lot of shots. He just says, 'Hey, this is what I need to do to win.'"
His play has gotten the attention of other coaches and players as well. Pfeffer was selected to the Class AAA All-Star Game scheduled for Feb. 10 at the RMU Sports Island Complex.
Fellow goaltender Bradford Thornburgh of Class AAA No. 1 North Allegheny, who beat Pfeffer and the Raiders, 2-1, on Dec. 18, said he is the best goaltender he has faced.
"He's been the biggest reason for Seneca Valley's success," Thornburgh said. "He's come in and they've gotten so much better this season."
Kirstein has been equally impressed with Pfeffer, who got the win against USC on Jan. 9. The Panthers coach knew Pfeffer was talented, but didn't know he was capable of what he has been doing this season.
"He's really taken the reins and given them a chance to win every game," Kirstein said. "We knew [as a freshman] he had experience and talent from playing amateur hockey, but I'm not sure I knew he had this level of competitiveness. I didn't know he'd be this good."
A lot of the competitiveness comes from the chip Pfeffer still has on his shoulder from not making varsity two years ago.
"It definitely has motivated me," Pfeffer said. "I wanted to prove a lot of people wrong."