West Xtra: The name changes but team should be strong again in PIHL


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What's in a name?

The defending PIHL Open Class champions figure to find out this season.

The annual Open Class power known as Quigley Catholic for three decades will be known as Ambridge this season. By any name, the Bridgers-nee-Spartans will likely be contenders for the league championship once again.

"The fun part is these kids -- if I gave them a pink jersey -- they would play," coach Jamie Dougherty said. "They don't care what name is on the front of the jersey -- as long as they get to play."

The logic behind the name change lies in the fact that the Quigley moniker became impractical this season because none of the varsity players are projected to be from the tiny Catholic school in Baden.

The team is basically a co-op program with players hailing from several other schools in the Post-Gazette's West Xtra region, a system that is sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League for its Open Class only.

Most of the team's top players last season were Ambridge students; Dougherty's list of who he believes will be four of his top players this season (goalie Preston Charlton, forwards Nick Santiago and Ben Riccio and defenseman Chris Ponter) are, too.

Dougherty previously had two stints coaching the Ambridge team -- in the 1990s and five years ago, after which the program merged with Quigley.

"You would think I would be excited about the change, but I really wasn't," Dougherty said. "You just win ... everything you can possibly win -- Nailers Cup, Open Championship, we even won the lowest penalty time award of the entire PIHL. And now this year we can't defend that title because we don't have the [same] name."

In addition to the two namesake schools, the program also gets players from South Side Beaver, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Moon and Freedom Area.

The PIHL in 2012-13 will feature 12 teams in Class A, 14 in Class AA and 15 in Class AAA. Bishop Canevin (Class A to Class AA) and Peters Township (Class AA to Class AAA) are voluntarily playing up in class; otherwise, the format invokes splitting the number of schools into thirds based on registered PIAA enrollment.

There are 22 teams in the developmental Open Class, which is in its final season of existence. Open Class teams are permitted to form cooperative agreements with nearby schools to complete a competitive-sized roster.

Frazier's new hockey program includes a varsity team that will play in the Open Class. After a hiatus without a varsity team, Altoona rejoins the classification. Deer Lakes similarly sat out varsity-level competition last year but is back in Class A this winter.

Fox Chapel is a surprising omission from the varsity alignment; just two seasons ago, the Foxes had the best regular-season record in Class AAA. Knoch (previously in Class A) and former Open Class team Ligonier Valley are other programs that have dropped their varsity teams.

The PIHL season is scheduled to begin Nov. 1, with the regular season ending in late February. Tentatively, Open Class playoffs will begin Feb. 24 with the Chiefs Cup and Nailers Cup finals four days later and the overall Open Cup championship three days after that.

The Penguins Cup playoffs are tentatively scheduled to begin March 4, with the semifinals March 11-13 and the championship games March 16 at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins are scheduled to play host to the Buffalo Sabres at 1 p.m. that afternoon.

The PIHL also is hoping to stage its semifinals on the Penguins' home ice, but a Penguins home game March 12 is complicating that schedule.

The Pennsylvania Cup state championship games alternate which side of the state they are played, and this season they will be played March 23 in the Philadelphia area.

Other highlights of the PIHL season schedule include the annual Outdoor Charity Series, which is in its sixth season. This year, games will be played Jan. 11 and 18 at North Park and South Park to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, breast cancer research, brain cancer research and the PIHL Paul Scuillo II Memorial Scholarship.

The PIHL also again plans on playing regular-season varsity games at the "Penguins Pond" temporary outdoor rink the NHL team sets up in the winter. Last season, the rink was on the South Side.

The PIHL's all-star Sunday was moved from January -- when it often conflicted with Steelers AFC championship game appearances -- to the week after the Super Bowl. It also moved from the Rostraver Ice Garden to the Robert Morris Island Sports Center.

This season, the PIHL is represented by 68 schools (including four in West Virginia) and 77 others have players who compete in high school and junior high-level hockey due to cooperative agreements.

"We're committed to growing the sport in the area any way we can," PIHL commissioner Ed Sam said.



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