Winning hockey games in the Section VI Federation presented twice the challenge for most teams this season. With so many of the top teams boasting a dynamic duo, points were tough to come by.
Consider that Alex Esposito and Ryan Marko of Sweet Home finished first and tied for second in the league scoring race. Scott Moser and Nick Panepinto of Kenmore West were tied for second and fourth. The Williamsville North twosome of Justin Kochan and Pat Mulvihill were 5-6. Williamsville East featured the steady Alex Durinka and Anthony Clair at 7-8.
"A lot of coaches say, 'That's all you have,' but no one can stop them," said Sweet Home coach Dave Gerspach about Esposito and Marko. "That's the thing -- we'd like to get more people involved, but luckily they keep scoring. They are pretty unbelievable out there."
Esposito won the league scoring title ending the regular season on Sunday with 23 goals and 13 assists for 36 points.
All 13 teams in the Federation qualify for the postseason. Pre-quarterfinals begin tonight with four games at the Amherst Pepsi Center.
Not only does Sweet Home have the top two scorers in the league, Derek Mohney finished second to Lancaster's Paul Dudish as the league's top goaltender.
Before the season started, Gerspach thought his team might have been a year away since Esposito was a junior and Marko and Mohney were sophomores. Instead, the Panthers came through with a 10-5-1 league record, and came within a tiebreaker of winning the White Division.
"We had a week in December before Christmas where we tied Timon (4-4), beat Kenmore East (5-0) and beat Canisius on that Sunday (3-1)," said Gerspach. "All of a sudden we're in first place and it was like, 'OK, this team is for real.' "
Kenmore West also exceeded expectations, capturing the Blue Division for the first championship in its five-year history.
Moser and Panepinto, both juniors, have played together since Squirts (10 years old). Moser has this postseason to add to his school record 30 goals while Panepinto had a record 25 assists.
"What's been really impressive with those two is they've continued to come through in the big games," said coach Kyle Pray.
Mike Vasquez, the third player on the line, has played his best hockey of the season in the past 10 games. Pat Griffin is one of the top two-way players in the league and defenseman Eric Kieffer is a plus-26.
"We started building this team a few years back, and did have an inkling we could do well," said Pray. "We've got a good supporting cast and the chemistry is a good thing."
Williamsville North, riding a 19-game winning streak, is the favorite to win the title. The Spartans are deep throughout the lineup with four players among the top 10 in scoring.
Coach Bob Rosen credited much of his team's success to "workhorse" Ryan Clifford on defense and senior goaltender Jordon Komm, who has the lowest goals-against average in the league (1.75).
North makes its playoff debut in Thursday's quarterfinals.
The competition at Clarence extends beyond the playing field. Red Devil athletes also compete academically, and it has paid off in a big way.
Clarence was one of only five NYSPHSAA member schools declared a School of Distinction in the Scholar/Athlete Team award program for 2004-2005. A School of Distinction is a school whose varsity teams have earned the NYSPHSAA Scholar/Athlete Team Award during the same school year.
All 28 of Clarence's varsity teams had combined averages higher than 90 last year. The school was recognized in the state's 2005-2006 winter issue of Scholastic Athletics, which is published three times a year.
"That's a major emphasis that teachers try to get into Clarence students' heads is budget your time, and work around sports and other activities," said Stephanie Turner, a three-sport athlete with a 94 average. "There's always help if you need it. You can go to the Learning Assistance Center and there are teachers who stay after."
>Say it isn't so, Joe
Image Joe Shifflet's surprise when he learned that a misprint on T-shirts sold at the wrestling tournament named for him included the word "Memorial."
"Can you believe it?" he said. "You've got to be kidding me. What are you going to do? I've got two of them," he said.
The Shifflet Tournament, held each January, was named for the longtime Sweet Home coach/athletic director following his retirement in 1995.