Upper echelon

Despite his on-ice domination, James Kline keeps a cool head, grinding for every inch. Jeff Swensen

Each game is a clean slate for James Kline.

Even if he scored the game-winning goal, netted a hat trick or dished out three assists his previous time out, the Upper St. Clair (Upper St. Clair, Pa.) hockey star treats his next outing as if he were a freshman hoping to earn a varsity spot.

His motivation for playing so relentlessly is to uphold the proud tradition of blue-collar hockey at Upper St. Clair. He is fueled by a desire to set an example for his teammates and the need to confirm he's the best player in the rink each time he laces up his skates.

"Every single time I'm on the ice, I'm trying to get better and prove myself," says Kline.

Through those efforts, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior center has established himself as Greater Pittsburgh's top player and the unquestioned leader for the Panthers, who've learned from their captain what going all out can do for your game.

"He comes to play every night," says Upper St. Clair head coach Larry Marks. "He doesn't go through the motions. Whether he scores or he doesn't, he's a presence on the ice."

Kline learned all about playing with passion from his older brother, Rich, who was a senior on varsity when Kline was a freshman. Rich knew what it meant to don the red, black and white jersey of the Panthers, one that's been worn by players such as Ryan Malone, who's now a star with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Kline spent the majority of his time as a freshman on JV and wore No. 25 while watching his brother on varsity in his No. 11 jersey give a consistent effort every game.

After his brother graduated, Kline humbly inherited No. 11 the following season.

"I knew I had to wear it with the same pride he did," says Kline. "Whenever you put the jersey on, it makes you realize the players who've played here before. There's a ton of tradition."

Kline didn't get much of an opportunity to uphold the tradition on varsity at the beginning of his sophomore year as he split time between the top squad and JV.

But after dominating on JV, he earned a permanent spot on varsity in December and never looked back, finishing second on the team in goals with 11 while adding four assists as the Panthers advanced to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Hockey League Penguins Cup Class AAA quarterfinals.

Upper St. Clair fell to eventual champion Pine-Richland (Gibsonia, Pa.), 8-2, but as soon as the season ended Kline vowed to come back the next year a more complete player.

Following a summer full of dry-land workouts and on-ice practice sessions, Kline made good on his promise.

He finished first in the area in assists (32) and second in scoring (54 points) in Class AAA and was selected to the 2009 MSA Sports All-Icers first team. His play helped lead Upper St. Clair to its first section title since 1992 and a spot in the PIHL Penguins Cup Class AAA semifinals at Mellon Arena.

The Panthers were knocked out of the playoffs in the semis with a 4-3 overtime loss to Seneca Valley (Harmony, Pa.). But it was in that game that Kline displayed the toughness and leadership his team has come to expect.

In the team's previous game, a quarterfinal win over Canon-McMillan (Strabane, Pa.), Kline suffered a knee-to-knee collision, and swelling in his left knee caused him to miss practice leading up to the semifinal tilt. By the time Upper St. Clair faced Seneca Valley, the swelling had subsided but the pain hadn't. Still, Kline sucked it up and tallied an assist in the loss.

"There's no way I was missing that game," says Kline.

"I don't think there's any question everyone on the team knows the toughness and what a competitor James Kline is," adds Upper St. Clair assistant coach Dylan Lewis.

Kline also stepped up after the game. As the players convened in the locker room, he gathered the entire team and spoke of not forgetting what the loss felt like and of using it as motivation during the offseason.

The outgoing seniors were impressed.

"He proved to me that he could lead this team and the organization would be in good hands with him," says Eric Surma, Kline's best friend and a senior captain of the Panthers last year.

Kline took hold of his new leadership role as captain beginning last summer when he helped organize off-ice activities like team workouts and a trip to a Pirates game. He's got the phone number of every member of the team in his cell phone and is in touch with them all regularly.

He also works with the younger players in practice, teaching them anything from proper positioning to shooting form.

"A lot of stuff goes into being a captain," he says. "It's not just a letter on the jersey."

Individually, his work during the offseason paid huge dividends as he lost 30 pounds in the hopes of becoming a more explosive, all-around forward. He notched 18 points in his first eight games this season and improved his play on the defensive end to establish himself as a two-way force.

"He's become very well-rounded defensively," says Marks. "He's more concerned with cleaning up his own end than offense."

Kline hopes he can lead the Panthers to a Penguins Cup title and a state championship this year. After that, he's aiming to play in college. At press time, he was looking at Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio as well as club programs at Penn State, Villanova and Pitt. If none of those options works out, he'll likely play junior hockey.

"If I stand out enough, then people are going to talk," he says. "People will make their judgments about you by what they see."

Looks like Kline has something to prove. And that's just the way he likes it.