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January 16, 2014

St. Ignatius again the team to beat at Bulldog Invitational

MEADVILLE — Do any of the teams slated to take part in the 18th annual Meadville Bulldog Invitational hockey tournament have what it takes to unseat St. Ignatius?

The Cleveland, Ohio-based Wildcats are the winners of the last four Bulldog Invitational titles, and they own the most titles of any program that has participated in the event with seven overall. The squad also owns the best all-time record at the tournament at 51-19-3, a winning percentage of .719.

Seven other teams, including the host Bulldogs, will take their shot during this year’s tournament, which gets underway today at the George S. DeArment Ice Arena. Meadville and North Hills will get the show going with a game starting a 4 p.m. Action continues through the night on Friday and all day Saturday. And the tourney concludes Sunday with the semifinals and the championship game.

Yet, it’s not going to be easy to knock the Wildcats off their perch. The Great Lakes Hockey League squad enters the tournament with the best regular season record of any of the eight teams in the tourney, going 16-3-4 so far.

However, Ignatius should be faced with some decent competition in its search for its fifth consecutive invitational trophy. Among its toughest opponents should be Bethel Park. The Blackhawks enter with a record of 16-5-0, making them one of the top teams in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League’s Class AAA .

“Yeah, Bethel Park, I think, is going to be real strong,” said Meadville head coach Jamie Plunkett. “They’re having a great year.”

Cathedral Prep also has a shot. The Ramblers, playing in Class AA in the PIHL, are off to a good start this season at 13-6-2. Upper St. Clair also enters with a winning record at 12-7-2.

 Four other squads enter the tournament with sub-.500 records. Among them is another Cleveland School in St. Edwards, which is 11-12-0. St. Ed’s was the Bulldog Invite runner-up last season to St. Ignatius. The Eagles are winners of three Bulldog Invitational titles and they are the last program to win one (in 2009) prior to Iggy’s current run.

Also in the hunt is North Hills (8-11-0), Sylvania Northview (7-10-0) and host Meadville, which is 7-17-4 this season when combining the records for both the Bulldogs and their midget team alter ego, the Crawford County Flames.

Meadville is not only aiming for its first berth into the tournament semifinals since 2011, the Bulldogs are also looking for their first tournament victory since that same year. The ’Dogs have gone 0-2-1 in each of the previous two tournaments.

In order to break that skid, the Bulldogs, averaging just 2.9 goals per game this season, will have to focus on offense.

“Goals had been hard to come by this year,” said Plunkett. “We seem to spend a lot of time in practice emphasizing shooting the puck and going to net because it’s been a real challenge for us this year to score.”

Leading Meadville this season has been Bryan Ray, who has a team-best 18 goals following his two-goal performance against Jamestown (N.Y.) this past Tuesday. Josh Orr follows with 14 goals and leads the team in assists with 15. The next leading scorer is Owen Miller with nine goals.

There will be plenty of other top-notch marksmen on the ice this weekend. For example, Bethel Park’s Christian Siak leads the PIHL’s Class AAA division with 22 goals this season. He’s also got 10 assists. Upper St. Clair has a good scorer in Austin Cassidy, who has 16 goals and eight assists. Cathedral Prep has a decent offensive trio in Ben Eliason (11 goals, 27 assists), Trevor Faulkner (12 goals, 19 assists) and John Colvin (13 goals, 12 assists). And North Hills has a skater to watch in Brett Berner (15 goals, 11 assists).

Once again, it’s going to be a tough field.

“I get criticized sometimes, why do we bring in the teams we do?” said coach Plunkett. “Well, If you want to raise your program up you’ve got to play tough opponents. I know there is a fine line between bringing in quality programs and bringing in programs that are way beyond your skill level. But the people still like coming here. I think the parents put on a great tournament. That’s why we get so many great teams at the end of the day. And we’re also looking to improve the kids and improve the team. If we wanted to win a tournament we could get teams that we could easily beat. But I don’t think that will accomplish our goals at end of the day, which is for the kids to get better.”

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