South Xtra: Peters steps up to win state hockey championship

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Joe Kittelberger isn't known as a goal scorer.

Peters Township's senior defenseman had just three goals in the team's first 23 games this season.

But with the score tied, 1-1, against La Salle College High School of suburban Philadelphia in the second period of the Class AAA Pennsylvania Cup championship game Saturday, Kittelberger said he knew someone needed to step up and get a goal.

So he took matters into his own hands.

With the puck in La Salle's zone, Kittelberger sidestepped an Explorer at the blue line and then wristed a shot past La Salle goaltender Harrison Feeney to give Peters Township (20-4) what ended up being the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory.

Peters Township coach Rick Tingle said it was a fitting finish.

"Yeah, absolutely," Tingle said. "Joe is by far the captain of the whole team, not just the defensive corps. He's been a great leader all season long. He's a quiet leader, but he works his [tail] off every practice, all the time, and he leads by example."

Kittelberger is the only senior on a defense that allowed the third-fewest goals in the PIHL during the regular season and only five in four postseason games.

Of course, another big reason for the team's goal-preventing abilities is senior goaltender Brian Baker. He stopped almost 95 percent of the shots he faced in the postseason, including 72 of 75 in the Penguins Cup and Pennsylvania Cup championships.

"You couldn't ask for anything better than [winning a state championship]," Baker said. "I'm just speechless with everything that's going on."

Baker was a part of the previous three Peters Township teams, all of which lost in the Penguins Cup championship game. Seniors Kittelberger and Evan Opeka, and junior Carter Ekberg, were on both the 2012 and 2013 Penguins Cup runners-up.

And the majority of this season's team was on last year's runner-up, which had only four seniors. The returning players set a goal last season to finally get over the hump this season.

"We set it as a goal in the locker room at the arena last year," Tingle said. "You feel bad because there are some seniors there, but we've come back and we'll go for it again next year. It's nice to accomplish your goals now and again."

The Indians finished the regular season with a 16-4 record, which was good for second in Class AAA behind Bethel Park.

Peters Township cruised to victories in its first two games of the postseason, beating Seneca Valley, 4-1, and Penn-Trafford, 6-1.

That set up a championship game against Bethel Park, which beat the Indians by a goal in the 2012 Penguins Cup final.

Jonathan Dagnal, who joined the team seven games into the season, scored a hat trick and Baker stopped 41 shots to lead the Indians to a 4-2 victory for the team's first ever Class AAA Penguins Cup championship. The Indians won four Class AA Penguins Cup titles in a row from 2002-05.

The victory against the Black Hawks advanced Peters Township to the state title game against La Salle, which was making its fourth consecutive appearance in the game and sixth in the past seven years.

"I went into the locker room with about 15 minutes to go and it was quiet," Tingle said. "There was some music playing, but it was pretty quiet and that's unlike them.

"And the first few shifts, we were, I think, nervous. But we got it out of our system early and scoring that first goal I think helped."

Adam Alavi scored his fourth postseason goal to put Peters Township up, 1-0, in the first period.

La Salle tied the score later in the period, but it was the only goal the Explorers could score against Baker. Kittelberger provided the needed goal to give the Indians their fourth state championship.

"My feet haven't hit the ground yet," Kittelberger said. "It's unbelievable."

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