Behind a strong group of seniors who endured Penguins Cup Class AAA quarterfinal losses in each of their previous three years, North Allegheny climbed to the top of the mountain last season, winning the Penguins Cup and state championships.
But now North Allegheny must turn out the lights on the 2012-13 season and look ahead to the upcoming PIHL season, which starts Thursday for the Tigers. To repeat those titles, North Allegheny will have to find replacements for its top five scorers, as well as its top defenseman, Harry Kramer.
"We have a lot of young players," coach Jim Black said. "Luckily, we have some older guys on the defensive side. But we'll have to get our young players up to speed as the season progresses. They're talented, but they just need to get the attention to detail."
Without Cody Black, Charlie Johnson, Connor Cash, Matt Fantaski and Joe Griffin, who scored eight goals in the final three playoff games, North Allegheny will need a big season from Marty Hubert. He scored seven goals and 13 points last season.
One area where the Tigers will be strong is in goal with senior Bradford Thornburgh returning. He led the PIHL Class AAA in goals-against average and save percentage in the 2012-13 regular season, then stopped 123 of 129 shots in four playoff victories.
"Bradford is definitely more comfortable in his second season in net," coach Black said. "Joe Hubert will also get some starts and they should push each other to be better."
The three teams the Tigers beat along the way to the Penguins Cup championship -- Canon-McMillan, Bethel Park and Peters Township -- also should be in contention for a title again in March.
The Big Macs changed coaches, as Terry Virtue replaced Yuri Krivokhija. Virtue, who played briefly in the NHL with the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, will welcome a talented team, led by J.D. Oddi and Austin Tonkovich.
Bethel Park, the 2012 Penguins Cup champions, returns its top skaters in Chris Siak and Derek Lesnak. Siak was the third-leading scorer last season in Class AAA with 36 goals, and Lesnak, the team's top scorer in 2012, compiled 27 points while switching from forward to the team's top blue-liner. He'll play mostly at forward, however, to start this season.
"Our goals are the same each year, and that's to play better each game," Bethel Park coach Jim McVay said. "If you make goals to win this or that, then you set yourself up for disappointment. I just want us to play our best game each time out."
Peters Township only had four seniors on the squad that lost to North Allegheny in the Penguins Cup final. One of those was the second-leading scorer in the classification, Trevor Recktenwald. But the Indians return all-star goaltender Brian Baker and a host of other talented players.
Seneca Valley and Butler should also be in the mix in Class AAA.
The Raiders had the fourth-most points in the class last season, and return two of its top scorers in Chris Marziotto and Peter Kipin, along with all-star senior goaltender Tanner Pfeffer.
Seneca Valley won the St. Margaret's preseason tournament title last week over the likes of Bethel Park, North Allegheny and Canon-McMillan.
The team the Raiders beat in the final of the preseason event was the Butler Golden Tornado, which made the playoffs last season after going 1-21 in the 2011-12 season.
Former Butler star Mike Guentner took over midway through the 2011-12 campaign and has changed the culture of the program.
"It's nice to see Butler up there," Black said. "You could see them changing the program around last year. Mike Guentner has done a great job restoring pride in the program."
Class AAA got a bit deeper with the addition of Pine-Richland, which finished as the Class AA runner-up last season. The classification also welcomes back Fox Chapel, which took a one-year hiatus from varsity competition.
In his first year as Latrobe's coach, John Winebrenner won the Penguins Cup and state Class AA titles.
So what can Winebrenner do for an encore?
"At our initial team meeting, the kids all said they want to repeat," Winebrenner said. "This team has the ability to repeat, but it will need to execute."
The Wildcats return 80 percent of their roster from last season, including senior leaders Chris Johnson and Adam Ferguson. The Wildcats also will look for big seasons from two sophomores, Dalton Hunter and Brendan Johns. They should help ease the loss of top scorer Josh Singley.
While Latrobe doesn't have to replace many players, they do have a huge void in net. Shane Brudnok was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Player of the Year after leading Class AA in wins, goals-against average, shutouts and save percentage.
Junior Tim Ruppen has the task of trying to fill Brudnok's shoes.
Latrobe knocked off Chartiers Valley in the Penguins Cup semifinals, and the Colts return the top two scorers in Class AA, seniors Anthony Franks and Cullen McMahon.
Bishop Canevin returns all-star goaltender Nikita Meskin and all-star de-fenseman Brennan Adams from a team that went 16-1-2 in the regular season before losing to Pine-Richland in overtime in the Penguins Cup semifinals.
But the Wildcats, Colts and Crusaders must be aware of Class AA newcomer Armstrong. Over the offseason, 2013 Class A semifinalist Kittanning and 2013 Open Cup champion Ford City merged to form the Armstrong team.
"I was very impressed with them," said Black, whose team beat Armstrong in overtime at the St. Margaret's tournament. "They'll be a handful for whoever has to play them."
The Riverhawks have the top two scorers from Class A, Kittanning's Christian Miller and Hunter Grafton, as well as Ford City's second- and third-leading scorers, Joshua Oliver and Luke Gross.
Quaker Valley's 2012-13 season ended with something foreign to the Quakers -- a loss.
West Chester East beat the Quakers, 6-5, in the Class A state title game to snap Quaker Valley's 46-game unbeaten streak.
But for the players returning for the two-time defending Penguins Cup champions and 2012 state champions, Quaker Valley coach Kevin Quinn doesn't think the loss is any extra motivation for the upcoming season.
"I'm sure it left a sour taste in their mouths but I don't think it's motivation," Quinn said. "The motivation every year at Quaker Valley starts at the first practice to win a Penguins Cup and to represent this side in the state championship."
Quaker Valley must replace four-year starters and 50-point scorers Ryan Dickson and Clayton Bouchard who graduated and leading scorer Adam Pilewicz, who left the team to play amateur hockey. But Jimmy Perkins, who had a team-high 33 goals, returns, as does Quinn's son, Connor, who posted 57 points as a freshman last season. The team also returns one of the best de- fenseman in the state in Ryan Lottes and his defensive partner from last season, Alex Quinn.
In goal, Parker Sherry returns for his second season as a starter after posting a .942 save percentage as a sophomore.
The returning players will hope to continue the Quakers' 45-game unbeaten streak against PIHL competition. Its most recent loss in the league came Nov. 3, 2011, against Mars.
The Planets have made six consecutive Penguins Cup finals, winning three, and should be a top contender to return. Mars' top two scorers, Craig Mazzotta and Nick Makozy, and its top defenseman, Ian Houk-Graves, return. But Mars must replace goaltender Christian Knapp, who finished second in Class A in wins and save percentage.
But Class A is deeper than just two teams.
"It's a 10-team league, and I think seven or eight teams should be very tough this year," Quinn said. "It's much deeper this year."
Deer Lakes won its first playoff game in 10 years in March and returns its top five scorers, led by junior Zach Luniewski.
Thomas Jefferson won its section title last season and returns 67-point scorer Zach Uhlyar, 23-goal scorer Tommy Kimmick and 13-win goaltender Nick Ripepi.
Westmont Hilltop, Freeport and Serra Catholic should also be strong.