At Sweet Home, classmates and teachers know who the hockey players are this season.
Three years ago? Not so much.
"Back then people didn't care about the hockey team," senior defenseman Paul Campise said. "Now people are into it, a lot of people come to the games -- it's way different than three years ago."
That's probably because three seasons ago, the Panthers went 3-21-1. This year, a group of upperclassmen who were part of that team are 12-2 and are unbeaten and untied through nine games in the Western New York Hockey Federation, which might be the best high school hockey league in the state.
"There's a great sense of pride, being able to turn the program around like we have," said junior goalie Derek Mohney. "When I was a freshman, nobody talked about it. Now it's the talk of the school."
There was a time when Federation teams would count games against Sweet Home -- a program that began in 1998-99 -- as automatic wins. There are a few seniors on this year's squad who have experienced a worse season than 3-21-1. The Panthers went 1-23-1 in 2002-03, coach Dave Gerspach's first season.
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I don't believe it, especially considering my first couple of years -- it's almost like a dream," said Gerspach. "It's a real good feeling -- it took a lot of hard work by a good group of kids."
Sweet Home tops the Federation's Division II (for small schools) at 9-0. Its nonleague losses were to state power Ithaca and to Lancaster in the championship of the Oswego Tournament.
The Panthers have major talents in each area of the ice. Alex Esposito and Ryan Marko are the league's returning top two scorers, Campise is a great two-way defenseman and Mohney is perhaps the league's top goalie.
Senior captain Dan Martino (third season) and classmates Matt Stewart (fourth season), Andrew Montanez (fourth season), Anthony Manzella (third season) and Corey Sykes (third season) as well as junior Justin Reich (third season) are major parts of a team forged by their tough early years. The Panthers began their turnaround last year with a 16-8-2 mark.
"We have a large group that has been together," said Gerspach, whose career record is 42-69-5. "We're a group that gets up and down the ice, works hard for 45 minutes and moves and passes the puck really well."
It starts up front with the potent duo of Marko and Esposito. Marko, a junior, is at 99 career points and finished second to Esposito in last year's Federation scoring race. This season both are in the top three again.
They have developed their knack around the net by working together on the ice every chance they get.
"They practice so many different plays together that they know where they are without even looking," Gerspach said. "They're talented players, but if they didn't work so hard together they wouldn't have that success. We'll have practice at the Pepsi Center and before they'll just work on all sorts of plays: they'll try it, talk about it, then try it, then talk some more, until they get it."
One such play paid off in a victory in which the Panthers earned the league's attention -- a 4-2 win over perennial Division II state playoff representative Williamsville East on Dec. 21. Sweet Home grabbed a late 3-2 lead on the power play when Esposito scored on a pass from Marko.
"In the game that put us on the map, one of those plays worked," Gerspach said. "Al starts up high and sneaks down low, and Ryan fakes a shot and then slides it over to him for an open net at the back door. A lot of teams try to do it, but it's a lot harder than it looks. Ryan had to put it through six guys and put it right on Alex's stick, and that's one they've worked on a lot of the time."
On the other end of the ice is the league's top returning goalie. Mohney, a second-team all-state selection last season as just a sophomore, owns Division II's best save percentage (.933). Gerspach says if Mohney gives up a rebound, he directs it to the right spot, and that he's a great stickhandler.
Often times Mohney will leave the puck for Campise, who might lead the league in shifts. "He has a great work ethic and he does everything right on the ice," Gerspach said. Campise logs minutes on both the power play and penalty kill; he's contributed 10 points and has been on the ice for only one goal this season.
"Our team knew if we kept playing together and building up our team chemistry we could pull things forward," Campise said. "The hard work has paid off -- look where we are now."
The Panthers will try to remain undefeated during an outstanding Federation doubleheader Thursday night as the top two teams in each division meet at the Amherst Pepsi Center.
St. Joe's and Williamsville North play a Division I showdown at 7 p.m. on the feature rink before Sweet Home meets Williamsville East at 9.
The first time the teams met, the Pepsi Center was jammed -- estimates put the attendance totals at well over 1,000 -- as the games were played concurrently on adjacent rinks. St. Joe's and Sweet Home both won, 4-2, after each scored go-ahead power-play goals in the third period.
North (7-1), which has made six straight state public school championship games, is currently in second place behind St. Joe's (8-1-1), which has played two more league games. Anthony Carusco scored the winner with 3:15 remaining for the Marauders while Branden Komm (.944 save percentage) had 15 of his 39 saves in the third period.
Sweet Home plays Williamsville East (8-1-1) in a game that will have more than first place in the Federation standings on the line. Section VI's representative to the Division II state championships is based on regular-season performance, so East needs to win if it wants to keep its hopes alive of returning to the state playoffs.
"The last time there were 600-700 people there so I assume it's going to be a packed house," East coach Mike Torrillo said. "I'm excited for the kids. You couldn't ask for anything better."
Sweet Home hockey during coach Dave Gerspach's five seasons; the program's first year was in 1998-99.