South Xtra: Even with two teams on ice, Big Macs producing winners
In the 2010-11 season, Canon-McMillan became the first PIHL program to field two freshman teams.
But the question remained -- what would happen when all those youngsters got a few years older?
"We probably had 22 players in the ninth-grade alone," Canon-McMillan hockey association president Bruce Ferguson said.
To accommodate that, the PIHL announced in the summer of 2011 that PIHL teams could have multiple junior varsity squads.
But when Ferguson spoke with PIHL commissioner Ed Sam last spring, Ferguson said they may have to field three junior varsity squads.
"We were projected to have 60 players in grades 9 through 12," Ferguson said. "And it wasn't just us. A lot of teams in the South Hills -- Peters Township, Upper St. Clair, Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon -- were having the same issues. And you don't want to have to cut players, because often times they just play amateur hockey and don't want to come back."
So Sam told Ferguson that he should consider having a second varsity squad, one that plays in the Open Classification.
Ferguson went back to his organization with the idea. Despite some opposition, the majority of people within the program approved of the move and the Big Macs put through paperwork to have two varsity squads.
Not surprisingly, Canon-McMillan's Class AAA varsity program is once again challenging for a league championship. The Big Macs, who won the 2010 Penguins Cup title and finished as the runner-up the following season, have been in the top five in the rankings for the majority of this season.
Meanwhile, the Open Classification team is holding its own. After getting off to a 1-7-2 start, the "other" Big Macs entered this week having won five of their past seven games and were in line to qualify for the postseason.
That's pretty impressive for a team that usually would be playing at the junior varsity level.
"It speaks volumes of the kids in the organization," said Open Class varsity team coach and Class AAA assistant Nick Godfrey. "We have five or six freshman players who are going up against teams comprising mostly juniors and seniors. I'm proud of this team."
Godfrey and Ferguson both agree that having a second team has short- and long-term benefits for the program.
The long-term benefits are the players get more ice time. Varsity games have 17-minute periods, while junior varsity games have 15-minute periods. In addition, Ferguson said the varsity teams are getting two-and-a-half hours of practice time on the ice every week, as opposed to the one hour the junior varsity teams likely would have received.
In the short term, when the Class AAA Big Macs call up players, they are getting skaters a little more accustomed to the speed and intensity of varsity-level hockey.
Senior Ryan Ferguson, who is Bruce's son, and sophomores Shane Morgan and Zach Gebhart have been regular call-ups for the Class AAA squad this season.
"The intensity is not the same at the junior varsity level," Bruce Ferguson said. "The varsity players are faster and more skilled.
"The other difference is they get to play against a lot of very good players. Blackhawk and Harbor Creek and other teams have very talented players. You don't play against players who, in amateur hockey would be classified as AAA or AA players, because if they are that good, they play for their varsity team."
The future of multiple varsity teams is up in the air, because there is talk of the PIHL eliminating the Open Classification as early as next season.
But, if the Open Class continues, Ferguson said he could see a few of the other larger schools having second squads.
Godfrey gives the idea his seal of approval.
"If they asked me, I would absolutely recommend it," Godfrey said.
First Published February 14, 2013 12:00 am