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Canisius hits high school hockey season bearing a champion’s burden

Canisius begins the boys Western New York Varsity Hockey Federation season in an unfamiliar spot.

The Crusaders are the hunted, the team that will receive its opponents’ best effort game in and game out for one simple reason. Everyone wants to beat a champion.

It’s a role the Crusaders relish because consider the alternative.

If Canisius hadn’t stunned rival St. Joe’s for the Niagara Cup last season, the Crusaders still would be in search of their first postseason championship since 2010 instead of trying to win back-to-back titles for the first time since that same season.

“This is a new role for the kids,” said second-year Canisius coach Sam Belsito. “We’re learning as we go the intensity we have to stay at to be successful. … We’re going to make a few mistakes but as long as we keep getting up and dusting ourselves off we’ll be fine.”

Canisius may have started out as the hunted but it is now chasing old friend St. Joe’s in the standings. The Crusaders are off to a 3-2 start, including 2-1 in the Fed, beating Aquinas, Williamsville North and Orchard Park. The Crusaders suffered their second loss Monday against St. Joe’s, 4-3, which is searching for its fourth playoff championship in six years. Canisius also lost to St. Peter’s Prep of New Jersey, 2-0.

The Crusaders have nine returnees from last year’s championship crew, including senior forwards Matt Santora, Austin Anastasia and John McMahon. Senior Tyler Seketurski, who helped Canisius’ club team win a state title last year, starts in goal.

While the Crusaders continue to adjust to their new role, St. Joe’s coach Rich Crozier admits the Marauders are a little hungrier. That statement comes attached with an asterisk.

“When it comes to St. Joe’s hockey, we’re expected to win every year,” Crozier said. “That pressure because we didn’t do it last year? I don’t think the pressure is greater.

“We want to be the best. For us it’s about preparation and work ethic and we’re putting it in right now. We expect to be there again at the end of the season. Hopefully we capitalize on our chances this time.”

The Marauders have 10 returnees who have contributed to their 5-1 start, which includes wins over reigning state champions McQuaid and Canisius and defending Section VI Division I-champion Niagara-Wheatfield.

Third-year defenseman Auggie Cudeck, who is also a state champion rower, is St. Joe’s rock on the blue line and can play in all situations. He’s part of a talented defense corps that includes Nick Wahler, a fine skater and puck mover, and Brad Herlan, another smooth player who returns after playing full-season travel hockey last year with the Regals.

Top returning forwards include Griffen LoVullo, a playmaker in his third season, along with fellow third-year player Jack Attea and Nick Carbone.

The all-St. Joe’s alumni coaching staff added two fresh faces to the mix in recent graduate Justin Crawford, a forward on two state title-winning teams, and Marc Mallare (2011 state champion goaltender).

Drive for five: Niagara-Wheatfield is off to a 2-3 start but the four-time defending Section VI champion hopes the simple strategy it’s employed throughout its record run bears championship fruit once more.

“We just have to keep at it and keep working hard,” said coach Rick Wrazin, whose Falcons are looking to win their sixth title in just their eighth season at the varsity level. “Obviously we hope to” extend the streak “but one of the biggest things is we have to realize it doesn’t come easy.”

N-W returns 14 players who have experienced that championship feeling, with three of them holding spots on the top two defense pairings - Kasey Haseley, Matt Canada and Joe Torcasio. Goalie Dominick Tallarico returns after sharing time with Casey Wall.

Garrett Downie, who scored four goals during a five-point effort in last year’s sectional final triumph over Williamsville North, returns to lead a dangerous forward crew that includes Alex Bauer, Nick Peters and Chris Tobey.

Contenders: Orchard Park is 2-2 after getting off to a start that included wins over Williamsville North and Niagara-Wheatfield. The Quakers, who lost to North in the semifinals last season, are coached by Josh Dannecker, who spent nine seasons as OP’s girls basketball coach before finishing out last season behind the hockey bench. He also coaches boys soccer and softball for the school. Dannecker played high school hockey at St. Joe’s.

Key players for the Quakers include captains Jeff Palczeweski and T.J. Maloney.

Williamsville North heads into its annual pre-Christmas-grudge match against St. Joe’s at 7 p.m. Thursday at Northtown Center. In that one, the Spartans (1-3) look to build on their first win of the season. The quest to return to the Section VI final for the ninth time in 10 years will be boosted by the return of Bowman Cup All-Star Matt Terrance, Nick Tracy, Derek Westbrook and Zach Kurbiel. Josh Surowiec and Kyle Wilk lead the defense.

The St. Joe’s-North pre-Christmas game typically attracts alumni from both schools who remember the heated battles the two teams had when they faced each other for the Federation playoff championship back when the Catholic and public schools participated in the same postseason tournament.

North won its first two Fed titles at St. Joe’s expense (2000 and 2001), but the Marauders won the last two championship games between the schools back in 2007 and 2008 before the current separation-of-church-and-state playoff format was put in place.

Realignment: In an attempt to improve competitive balance and make it so every regular-season game matters, league officials realigned the divisions based on strength of teams.

Division I features the six strongest programs (St. Joe’s, Canisius, Niagara-Wheatfield, Williamsville North, Lancaster and Orchard Park). Division II includes state runner-up Williamsville East, Kenmore East, Hamburg, Timon, Clarence and Frontier.

Division III features West Seneca West, Williamsville South, Niagara Falls, West Seneca East, St. Francis and Grand Island. Division IV includes Lockport, Lew-Port, Amherst, Kenmore West, Sweet Home and North Tonawanda.

Division rivals play each other twice, while Division I and II teams play each other once. Division III and IV schools also play each other once. The crossover games will count double in the standings.

The postseason format remains the same. Regular-season points will determine the top six seeds in the Section VI Division I tournament, with Niagara Falls and Lockport rounding out the final two seeds in the eight-team tournament.

St. Mary’s of Lancaster opted not to field a team this season, which means there won’t be a Monsignor Martin/Niagara Cup playoff quarterfinal game.

Tale of two Easts: Two-time defending Section VI Division II champion Williamsville East and Kenmore East have faced each other in the sectional final four of the past five seasons, including the last two. There’s a good chance both are on another collision course.

The Flames, who went 22-3-0-1 last season, return nine players, including first team all-state forward Mike Steffan, who recorded 21 goals and 33 points in 16 regular-season games. Alex Finley, Dylan Wild, Jack Kelly, Matt Cohen and Nick Piekarski are other experienced forwards back in the mix, while the blue line is anchoed by Aaron Bengart, Alex Tzetzo and Joe Mostowy.

Ken East lost three players from last season’s 15-win outfit. A.J. Marinelli is back looking to build on a 40-point season and will have a familiar face as a passing option in Trevor Pray. Pray played full-season travel last year instead of high school. Forward Anthony Tulipane also returns after playing full-season travel. Cullen Smyth will play forward and defense his senior season.

Prep school update: Nichols is rather young with just three seniors but there is plenty of talent on the crew that is off to a 2-3 start. Junior Erik Urbank is the Vikings’ top scorer and has already committed to Dartmouth. Other players with Division I potential for Nichols include junior forwards Matt Gasuik and Steve Senese and defensemen Jack Millar and Anthony Scanzuso.

Nichols’ annual series with Shattuck St. Mary’s continues with the Vikings playing host to the longtime national power at 7 p.m. Feb. 19 and noon Feb. 20 at Dann Memorial Rink.

St. Francis’ 7-4 start includes a 5-0 weekend in winning the Shadyside Tournament over Thanksgiving. St. Francis, whose top players include seniors Joey McGrath and Jake Kaempf, will host a 25-team Midwest Prep Hockey League Showcase Tournament Jan. 1-3 at HarborCenter.

At the same time at Leisure Rinks in West Seneca, St. Francis will host an eight-team tournament, the St. Francis Bowers Invitational, for its junior varsity prep team name in honor of longtime coach and Prep Team founder John Bowers.

Etcetera: Hamburg is all in favor of the new division set up for a simple reason.

The Bulldogs’ placement in Division II is a sign of respect, a sign that it is one of the top small-school programs in the area.
“I was flattered they chose Hamburg,” said coach John McFall, whose program has reached the sectional semifinals the past three seasons. “We get an opportunity to play Frontier twice, which is great for our program.”

It’s great for both programs because two meetings instead of one should ratched up the intensity of the rivarly and perhaps attract bigger crowds for their games on Jan. 4 and Jan. 30 at Hamburg Town Rink.

• Sweet Home also is in favor of the format because it has a pretty young team.

“I think it’ll help because these kids will be able to win games and learn instead of losing close games,” Panthers coach Dave Gerspach said.

• Clarence has 18 returnees from last year’s sectional semifinalist crew - led by senior captain Randy Felber and junior Ryan Kelly. What does Richard Brooks think about being in Division II instead of Division I?

“The league worked hard and came up with the best system they could,” said Brooks after a recent 3-2 win over Hamburg. “We want every game to count. Today’s game mattered because somebody’s going to be Division II champion.”

• North Tonawanda, which lost in double overtime in the quarterfinals to Hamburg last year, hopes to enter the playoffs as Division IV champion. The Lumberjacks have eight returnees from last season leading their charge, including Zach Warner, Curtis Vivian and Spencer Scalise.

2015 All-Federation underclassmen: Small Schools - Mike Steffan, junior forward (Williamsville East), A.J. Marinelli, senior forward (Kenmore East), Joey Spataro, senior defenseman (Kenmore East).

Key dates: Section VI Division II tournament first round, Feb. 18-19 at Northtown Center; quarterfinals, Feb. 21 at Northtown; semifinals, Feb. 25 at Northtown; final, Feb. 29 at First Niagara Center.

• Section VI Division I tournament quarterfinals, Feb. 20 at Northtown Center; semifinals Feb. 24 at Northtown Center; final, Feb. 29 at First Niagara Center.

• Niagara Cup semifinals, Feb. 23 at Dwyer Arena; final, Feb. 29 at First Niagara Center.

• State quarterfinals, March 5 at Northtown Center.

• State final four, March 11-13 at HarborCenter.

• State Catholic final, TBA.