Apr. 28—The North Pittsburgh Tier II 16U boys hockey team had to battle back from an early hole in their Mid-Am District national-qualifying tournament in late March.
The Wildcats lost their first game to the Pittsburgh Predators, 4-3, in a double overtime shootout.
But they responded with convincing wins over the Armstrong Arrows, 8-2, and the Westmoreland Eagles, 6-1, before edging the Arctic Foxes, 3-2, in overtime to win the championship.
"I was very proud of the guys," coach Mark Pittman said. "With the slowdowns with covid quarantines and also injuries during the season, we were hoping to get some bounces to go our way. We started out ranked third in the country. The guys were very resilient, and to recover like we did in the (Mid-Am) tournament and win the title, that was pretty special."
North Pittsburgh's 16U squad now will test its mettle at the national level with play, starting Thursday, at the USA Hockey Youth National Championships. Sporting an overall 20-12-1 record, the Wildcats will see action at the 3A level in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"This team, two years, ago, got to the championship game and lost to Mt. Lebanon," Pittman said.
"I said I would stick around and do it again with this group, and we were able to do it. It was our goal to get there this year, and it feels great."
The Pittsburgh region teams — 13 in all coming out of their respective Mid-Am tournaments — are getting the opportunity at nationals after last year's tournaments were canceled over growing concerns in the early stages of the covid pandemic.
North Pittsburgh also will have its Tier II 14U team in action in the 3A tournament starting Thursday in McKinney, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.
"From the top at USA Hockey all the way down to the team level, getting that opportunity this year at nationals is such a great accomplishment because of the uncertainty all season long of how everything was going to play out," Wildcats 14U coach John Kaltenecker said.
The Wildcats 14U, 35-8-1 on the season, won all five of its Mid-Am state tournament games, outscoring its opponents 27-10 and defeating the Allegheny Badgers, 5-3, in the finals.
"We were playing two or three games a week (during the regular season) because we didn't want to short ourselves from playing our full season of games," Kaltenecker said. "With such unknowns, we were grateful to get in a full season.
"This is a very exciting feeling for the team. They are, I'm sure, going to live it up in the moment. They will learn as they get older how rare of an occurrence it is for some teams and organizations to get to nationals. It's a great accomplishment for them, and I am so proud."
With safety guidelines in place at each of the tournament locations, games are kicking off with all the divisions having 12 district winners and four at-large qualifiers comprise each 16-team field.
Five teams — the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite boys Tier I 14U, 15 Only, 16U and 18U and the Esmark Stars boys Tier I 18U — begin competition Wednesday in Dallas and Maryland Heights, Mo.
Along with the North Pittsburgh teams, the Pittsburgh Predators boys Tier II 18U 3A team (Green Bay, Wisc.), the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite girls Tier I 14U and 16 U squads (West Chester, Pa.) and the Steel City Selects girls Tier II 14U 2A, 16U 2A and 19U 1A teams (Denver, Colo.) start their tournaments Thursday.
Each team is slated for three pool-play games leading to the playoffs and then the championship contests Monday.
"At the Tier II level, there is constantly new teams going to nationals, and that shows the competitiveness," Kaltenecker said. "That makes it very special when you can qualify."
Michael Love is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-856-7400 x8632, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .