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Freeport has paid the price to earn a spot among the elite teams in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League.

Literally.

Most high schools do not provide any funds for the expensive sport, and the money ends up coming out of the pockets of the players and their parents.

That extra challenge is what makes a trip to the PIHL Penguins Cup finals even more special for those lucky enough to get there.

Freeport will make its first appearance in the championships when it takes on Quaker Valley in the Class A title game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Mellon Arena.

“It’s awesome,” Freeport senior Beau Zack said. “We don’t get a penny from the school. We just go out there and say, ‘Hey, we’re a Freeport team, and we pay out of our own pockets.’ Hockey is a very expensive sport. I’m very thankful that my parents pay for my hockey.”

Freeport coach Dave Hepler said each player must pay $1,000 per year to cover PIHL dues and ice time for practices and games. Equipment and uniform costs can add another $500 or more to that bill, Hepler said.

In other words, joining a high school hockey team is not just a fun thing to do after school. It’s a minor business venture.

“It’s real sweet that we made it this far,” said Hepler, whose sons Zach and Jeremy are two of the top defensemen for Freeport. “With the parents footing the bill, it’s real sweet for the parents. With no funding from anybody, we were able to take the team and develop it and make it all the way to the Penguins Cup finals.”

There are 14 players on the Freeport team, and it’s safe to say all of their parents are happy their money has gone to a successful cause. Although it’s an equally safe bet the parents would have backed their sons even if they finished at the bottom of the standings.

“It makes it a whole lot better knowing I didn’t waste a lot of my parents’ money,” Freeport junior goaltender Tim Zahumensky said. “They’ve put in a lot of time and money. I really do appreciate it. It’s hard to describe. I have a lot of respect for my parents.”

Although Freeport doesn’t financially support its hockey team, Zahumensky said the moral support from the students, teachers and administration has been strong. He is expecting a big crowd wearing blue and gold to cheer on the Yellowjackets on Saturday at Mellon Arena.

It’s kind of symbolic Freeport will get to play on the same ice as millionaires such as Sidney Crosby. Money certainly is important in hockey — even at the high school level.

And with Mellon Arena scheduled to be replaced with a new arena after the Penguins’ 2008-09 season, there is a strong possibility Freeport could be the last team from the Alle-Kiski Valley to play at the 46-year-old arena.

“It’s very exciting,” Zahumensky said. “I feel great about it. I can’t wait for the game. And now that they’re tearing down Mellon Arena, we will be one of the last teams to play in it. It’s a big thing.”

Paul Kogut can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com.

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